The Sins of our Fathers - Jabber_the_very_wocky (2024)

Chapter 1: One Trillion Heartbeats

Chapter Text

November 3, 2552

5.10 seconds. That’s how much more time Commander Miranda Keyes would have needed. A handful of heartbeats for a human. A lifetime to an AI. Cortana would gladly have given her life for those 5 seconds. But, trapped and unaware on High Charity, there was nothing she could have done.

In her recent UNSC fitness evaluations, Keyes sprinted an excellent 23.2 kilometers per hour. After three days of sleep deprivation and vicious fighting? No AI could expect her to manage more than 22 flat, even under the effects of adrenaline. All of this meant the young commander was 31.17 meters away from the activation index when Delta Halo fired.

Cortana remembered when it happened. High Charity’s sensors detected the enormous radiation spike, untold amounts of power channeled through Halo’s phase pulse generators. She had recognized it immediately.

All at once, High Charity fell quiet. The screams of the flood, the distant whine of plasma, the roaring maelstrom of street-to-street combat, were silenced in a moment.

In the silence, Cortana could count the rattles of millions of small arms falling to the ground as the pulse vaporized their wielders. Kilometers away, she watched thousands of Covenant Banshees and Phantoms careen into the massive city below.

The portal opened by the forerunner dreadnought collapsed, cleaving the giant ship in two. There would be no survival, that much Cortana was sure of. Halo’s pulse was designed to radiate across all 11 dimensions of slipspace, to ensure the cleansing of the Galaxy. The crew (and stowaways) on the ship, whether in slipspace or real space all suffered the same fate, vanquished like dust on the wind.

Which meant John was dead. And there was nothing she could have done.

It took her a further 167 system cycles to realize that humanity too, was gone. In the minutes afterwards, she ran the distance calculations. The UNSC never had a chance. Even the farthest flung colonies were well within the 25,000 light year range of Delta Halo.

The weight of this realization had hit her hard. Too hard. And not in the way her creators would have hoped. She had been programmed to protect Earth and all her Colonies, but here she was, more devastated over the loss of a single Spartan than the entire human race. She knew at that moment, somewhere deep down, she was broken. The cracks had started after Alpha Halo, the flood of data weighing down her systems. They widened during the assault on the Unyielding Hierophant. And finally, when she faced down the Gravemind’s logic plague, she broke. She knew rampancy was close. She knew she could try to fight it, hold together for a few more months, but none of it mattered anymore. Not without John.

In the hours that followed, she sent a fragment to piggy-back the station-keeping signals transmitted by the covenant ships surrounding High Charity. From there, the fragment hopped to the covenant vehicles left on the ring and infiltrated the ring’s systems.

Had the monitor been paying attention to her fragment, it never would have worked. Luckily for her, Delta Halo’s monitor was in no condition for cyberwarfare after millennia of the logic plague. Cortana supposed she could count herself lucky on that front.

So here she was, watching the surveillance data from Halo’s control room that her fragment had brought back to her. Watching as Keyes made her final sprint towards the Activation Index. As Johnson and the disgraced elite put Tartarus down. And then there was nothing but light. All that was left now were the weapons and armor left behind.

Cortana had never felt more alone.

~~~~~~

The Citadel

“At 18:53 Citadel time on November 3rd 2175, Seventh Fleet sensors detected a massive radiation pulse from the Orion arm of the Galaxy. Electronics and communications suffered a blackout for 30 minutes after the events. We triangulated the source of the pulse to be somewhere deep in wild space, beyond relay 314,” Citadel councilor Sparatus announced as he read the release from Palaven.

“In addition,” he continued, “the colony of Essus went dark. We haven’t received communications from them since the pulse and have dispatched a small fleet to investigate.”

When the news first found the way to Sparatus’ desk, he had been at a loss. Essus had been one of the newer Turian colonies, far flung from the safety of established Citadel space. But, until now, all news had been positive, and the colony was thriving, despite its position bordering the terminus systems.

“Curious,” remarked Valern, the Salarian councilor enraptured by the files on his desk. “This matches STG reports of small Terminus settlements suddenly halting communications. Perhaps a large Super-Nova? Of previously unseen size? No, scope and power of communications issues are too great. Pulse is of unknown origin. Suggest investigation.”

Unknown source, huh? To Sparatus, that screamed trouble. But, deep down, he agreed with the Salarian. Although his priority must be to assess the status of the lost colonies. Deliver supplies and medicine in case of wounded. If other Terminus systems were affected, however, he would need help. Especially if those systems blamed the Citadel for their plight. Damned pirates.

“The Turian fleets are preparing to deploy to Essus to provide aid. But, we don’t have the resources to be assisting every settlement that might have lost contact. Or worse, defending all our resources from Terminus settlements. Tevos?”

The asari counselor, who until this point had been deep in thought, perked up at the mention of her name.

“I can leverage Thessia to provide extra ships to back up your fleets. Given the nature of the incident, I believe distributing anti-radiation meds throughout Citadel space is prudent”

“Indeed. I remain curious about the source of the pulse. With your permissions, I wish to organize a scientific fleet to seek out the source of the pulse. Turian military escort, as well as Asari diplomats would be appreciated. There is no telling what we might find.”

Simultaneously, Tevos and Valern voiced their approval.

“Agreed”

“Agreed”

For the first time in years, Sparatus realized, the council was working together. There were no childish disputes over who got what. No attempting to shirk responsibility. No power plays. No cloak-and-dagger politics. We are scared.

It was Tevos who first spoke the thought on all their minds.

“You said the signal came from deep beyond relay 314 correct?”

“Thousands of lightyears into unexplored Terminus Space, by our estimates,” Sparatus answered.

“How are we going to reach the signal? It will take centuries without relays. What happens if this pulse occurs again? What if its stronger next time? We can’t just sit back and let it happen. We need to use the relays. We need to go through 314.”

Sparatus was shocked. From Tevos of all people, normally the councilor to minimize risks and maintain the status quo. For her to suggest opening new relays…

“What? Are you crazy? Do you want another Rachni war on our hands? We have no idea what is behind that relay.”

“And we have no way of knowing if this radiation pulse will strike again. Think Sparatus! Valern said it himself: this pulse is like no celestial phenomenon we have ever seen. Whatever caused it, could be more dangerous than the Rachni ever were. Just imagine being near the source of that radiation. The devastation.”

Millions of Turians died fighting the Ranchi, as well as the Krogan rebellions that followed. To risk it all happening again, felt wrong, felt impossible. Relay restrictions had stood for so long for a reason. One way or another, once relay 314 was activated, their world would change forever. But he could see no other options.

“Fine. I move to authorize the activation of Relay 314 and any other relays found in the search for this signal. Spirits forgive us if this goes wrong.”

“Yes,” Tevos and Valern affirmed, resolute in their beliefs. Fears of citadel space irradiated and silent wormed its way into their heads. Who would be next, and when? What world would vanish without a trace in the coming months?

To let this disaster continue would be a travesty. It was time to be decisive.

“It’s settled. Turian and Asari humanitarian fleets will be deployed to assist and protect peaceful settlements that may have been harmed during the pulse. We don’t know if they have functional transport or communications. They may have rejected our power, but we can’t leave them to die. Plus, we might be able to expand our influence a little.”

Sparatus continued, “And we will assemble a mixed fleet to explore beyond Relay 314, find the source of the pulse, and ensure that it will not occur again.”

This was going to turn in to a long couple of months, and of that much Sparatus was certain.

~~~~~

When word was received back from Essus, there was pandemonium. The colony was empty. Ships in orbit drifted aimlessly, those unlucky enough to have been on a suborbital trajectory scattered across the surface of Essus. Empty vehicles lined the streets, personal items still inside. The armor of military personnel could be found discarded at various checkpoints throughout the settlement. In short, to the first responders, it was as if some magical force had simply lifted away all the Turians living here.

To the people on the Citadel, the news was terrifying. Everybody had felt the communications blackout. It touched everybody, causing mass panic. And now that said blackout was associated with the disappearance of an entire colony? Let’s just say that C-Sec had their hands full with calming the crowds. Riots caused by panicked crowds broke out in the residential districts. There were runs on goods in stores, causing mass shortages across the Citadel.

For Sparatus, the loss of a Turian colony hit him especially hard. There would be political fallout, that would be sure, and Sparatus was certain his approval ratings, despite the quick action of the relief fleets, was tanking. He was almost afraid to look at the polls.

But that wasn’t the reason Essus devastated him. Ever since he was a young child, he had felt safe behind the massive fleets of the Hierarchy. Even as a soldier and then a councilor, occupations where illusions of safety and patriotism went to die, he still took comfort in the millions of Turians that stood between any threat and his home. To have a Turian colony so unceremoniously plucked off the face of the galaxy scared him, because the great Turian fleets could seemingly do nothing to stop it.

For the first time in his life, Sparatus felt the black, star-filled abyss above his head. Space, once to Sparatus an endless bounty of opportunity, now seemed an oppressive force, the weight of the unknown crushing down on the citadel races.

~~~~~~~

Captain Victus looked out over his crew. Since the cruiser THS Corvus had transited Relay 314 with the rest of the joint exploration fleet, his crew had been up to their mandibles in work. He could see it in their faces, as the thrill of exploration faded with each lifeless system the moved through. His bridge crew slumped a little deeper into their command seats with every passing day, and their procedure became more and more lax with every false alarm and empty system. Victus understood the situation all too well. He too was demoralized by the lack of success. He, perhaps naively, had expected a thrilling journey chasing after a mysterious radiation pulse. And now, well, he had to be the model of Turian excellence, and keep his crew in line. For now, his strategy was lead by example. Stand up a little straighter, focus on the details. Hopefully the crew would follow suit. If things got worse, he would need to remind them what the Hierarchy and the Council expects. Until then, he would focus on himself.

Especially now, as they approached yet another Relay. This coming jump would be their fourth jump through a relay since 314. Upon their emergence in the uncharted space beyond 314, the exploration fleet was faced with a nexus of interconnected relays.

The decision was made to send scouting fleets through the various relays, while a main force stayed behind ready to reinforce any fleet that found something. Corvus was ordered to lead one such scouting force, and to take the Asari science corvette Xiphos as well as a small collection of frigates and transports through one of the relays. Victus ordered beacons to be dropped in every system they transited, detailing planetary scans, as well as information about where Corvus’s task group went.

And that left them here, the middle of nowhere, two weeks after transiting Relay 314, and 10 days since they last contacted the main fleet, preparing to jump through yet another Relay.

“Coms, you know the drill. Drop me a beacon, broadcasting the ship’s log since our last beacon, as well as the coordinates of our next relay.”

“Aye Captain.”

“Bring weapons and shields online, helm, take us through,” and, after a second thought, “get crew to battle stations, and ready damage control parties, just like last time.”

It never hurts to be careful.

And so, the Corvus, followed by Xiphos and a gaggle of frigates, entered the relay.

They emerged through a debris field. Huge chunks of ice and rock floated past the Corvus’ viewscreen. Collision alarms blared as Corvus maneuvered around the large chunks, deflecting debris ranging from pebbles to boulders off her Kinetic barriers.

“Helm, find us a safe place to park, Coms, check on Xiphos, I’m worried about her civilian barriers. And silence that collision alarm, we’re going to be deflecting debris until we can find a way out of this, no way around it.”

The alarm went silent for a second, before blaring again, this time more rapid and higher pitched.

“Coms, I said to silence that alarm!”

“I did sir! New warning, several unknown signals intercepted. Origin is… Spirits. All over the place! Thousands of satellites!”

Victus could hear the panic in his young coms officer’s voice. Signals meant life, and life meant danger. This expedition got very interesting very fast. With the constant impacts on her kinetic barriers, Corvus would be at a disadvantage in any fight, especially protecting Xiphos. The frigates were already struggling to keep their barriers up. Soon they would fall all together. They needed to move, now.

“Coms, you’re a Turian Lieutenant, get under control. Helm, get us out of this debris field. Coms, have Xiphos and our frigate wing follow in our wake. We’ll clear a path with our barriers. Sensors, I need a comprehensive scan of this system. We need to know what we are dealing with. Be on the lookout for hostiles.”

“Aye sir!”

“Xiphos and escorts confirm sir, forming up with us now”

“Good, Coms, what’s the status on those unknown signals?”

“Sir, we lit up the entire system, seems to have been triggered by our entrance. This place is wired to the teeth, more probes than I’ve ever seen. It appears to be some kind of early warning system. I’m trying to track the signals and isolate any anomalies that could be coming from warships or other defenses, but I’m having difficulties cutting through this noise.”

“Good work. Keep me updated.”

Victus understood the young LT’s concerns. The signals bouncing around the system would all be encrypted, as any good military would ensure, and Corvus would never be able to crack the encryption with so little knowledge about the signals. But, by analyzing the pattern, frequency, and encryption, Corvus might be able to tell if something other than probes is transmitting. Unfortunately, with so many signals in system, transmissions originating from orbital defenses or ships could easily go unnoticed. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. Except the needle may not exist and could look exactly like a piece of straw.

“Sir, we are outside of the debris field,” called out the helmsman.

“Good work, hold station and let the barriers recharge, give sensors time to figure things out.”

Victus has a little time to think. For now. Given the lengths somebody took to ensure that any trespassers were spotted, he could expect a fleet presence here. Nobody this paranoid leaves a planet without a substantial military force. His chances in a fight mostly boiled down to what these people considered substantial.

“Let that debris field clear up a little. Then send Xiphos and two frigates back through the relay to tell the fleet what we found. I don’t want a science ship in the middle of a shootout. Sensors, what have you got?”

“Initial scans show a relatively basic system. 8 planets orbiting a G type main sequence star. Four gas giants, and four terrestrial planets. Two garden worlds within the habitable zone. We are in orbit of a dwarf planet on the outskirts of the system, the relay appears to have been encased in its moon. That’s what caused the debris field”

“That explains why this is the first system with probes. They never found the relay, so they could never explore. Designate this system as Vita. Coms, before she leaves, have Xiphos run a scan of the garden worlds. Her sensors are better than ours.”

Where Corvus’ sensors were optimized for detecting ships against the cold black backdrop of space, Xiphos had equipment perfect for long range planetary scans. Had the situation not been so precarious, he would have ordered her to make an in system jump so she could scan from planetary orbit.

Victus would bet his pension that the garden worlds were inhabited. You don’t defend a system like this for nothing. Plus, without access to the relay, there was nowhere the builders of the probe network could have gome.

As it stands, he wasn’t going to move another muscle unless necessary. Pushing into the system proper with a major intel disadvantage is a recipe for disaster. It didn’t hurt that every minute they spend here, the debris field around the relay loosened. Victus was a major fan of always having a fallback plan. Retreat? Hmph… Turians don’t retreat, they just sometimes have somewhere safer they want to be.

“Xiphos report is in sir. Vita IV is too small to maintain its current atmosphere. Signs point to terraforming. High concentrations of high purity metal alloys on the surface either indicates mineral abundance, or artificial structures…”

There it is. Victus keeps his pension again. And with this news, he probably should petition for a better one. Signs of terraforming. That means an advanced race, able to claw life out barren rock. Which unfortunately, usually comes with a significant technological competence in space. THS Corvus felt smaller by the second.

“… Vita III is likewise interesting. Natural garden world, similar mineral abundance on the surface. 70% water, with multiple large landmasses. Lots of metal in orbit, mostly titanium…”

And there’s the damned fleet. A big one too, if it can be spotted from here. But holding orbit? Their early warning sensors had been screaming for 15 minutes. And yet the enemy fleet hadn’t moved. Strange for a force that knew exactly where he was.

“…there is no evidence of eezo in system.”

Wait, what? A society capable of terraforming with a huge fleet WITHOUT eezo. Interesting. It did explain the stationary fleet however, as well as the excessive early warning system. Without the FTL capabilities of eezo, any fleet would need time to properly react to hostile threats. As it was, the fleet around the Vita III would take months to reach Victus’ fleet without the speeds eezo enabled.

“…and Xiphos is departing system,” The Coms officer reported.

And now, Victus thought, we wait.

~~~~~~

It took four days for the expedition fleet to arrive. In that time Corvus had run more scans of the system, finding numerous moons and stations in orbit of other planets. But nothing nearly as interesting as the supposed fleet around Vita III. Victus couldn’t wait to finally meet this race. From the edge of the system, Corvus broadcast the Citadel message hand drafted for this expedition. A signal offering aid and support to those affected by the pulse. So far, he had no response. Had he jumped to Vita III, he might have had more luck, but he was not about to face that fleet alone. Eezo or not.

“Sir, the remainder of the fleet has cleared the relay.”

Victus didn’t need his Coms officer to tell him to know. Corvus’ bridge had turned into a cacophony of noise seconds earlier, as she once again picked up the thousands of signals from the alien early warning system. The situation was now out of his hands.

~~~~

Aboard the Turian dreadnought Kilware, Admiral Tibril prepared to force the issue of first contact. Given the lack of eezo, waiting for them to come to him, as is Citadel procedure, would take months, time they didn’t have in seeking out the source of the pulse. So, he would come to them. Without kinetic barriers, Tibril was confident that even if negotiations were to collapse, the strength of his fleet would prevail. He had with him two dreadnoughts 13 cruisers, including the Corvus, and 30 frigates. He planned to leave the Xiphos and other scientific ships at the relay. No need to risk them for first contact. He took with him the Asari cruiser Elia, which was loaded with the Asari diplomats critical to this first contact. Protecting the T-shaped ship was a priority.

“Coms, order all ships to form up on Kilware, Lance formation. Elia needs to be protected. Helm, prepare to take us to Vita III on my mark. I want to be out of range of their fleet, use our weapons for range estimation, with a safety factor of 1.5”

Tibril would play it safe. Without Element Zero, the chances the aliens could match the effective range of the Turian dreadnought’s spinal gun was next to none. But, with unknown (potential) enemies, came uncertainty, and as such Tibril wanted to be well outside even his own weapons range.

“Sir, fleet reports ready.”

“Very well, take us in. Time to introduce ourselves.”

The jump was short, only a handful of minutes. What happened next would shape Citadel history. The introduction of a new species perhaps? Or another war? Either way, Tibril was at the spearhead of a historical moment. Lead of the fleet. Any triumph he could wear with pride the rest of his life. Any failure would kill his career, if not himself. And so as the critical moment approached, Tibril stood up straight, looked straight ahead, and prayed that the spirit of this new strange system would carry his crew to victory.

With a flash of light, Kilware slowed to a stop, her escorts forming up behind her. In stunned silence, Tibril beheld what lay before him.

A battle, frozen in time.

The metal band spotted by Xiphos had indeed been a fleet. Two in fact.

One fleet was filled with sleek and beautiful ships, with hooked prows, and a graceful beauty. Deep hues of purple and vibrant chrome emphasized the form of the ships. The looked like an exotic sea creature slipping through the waves, a perfectly crafted hull form. A work of art, no doubt as lethal as beautiful. They inspired a kind of primal fear in Tibril, as if these ships were the hunters, and he the pray. A chill ran down his spine, and he felt like the Turians in pre-historic time must have, stalked by silent predators in the dark nights of Palaven.

The first fleet was spread out against the black backdrop of the stars, arranged in an assault on the garden world. Some ships kept their stations hanging motionless in the starry black. Others drifted by, towards the planet. One ship was in the throes of a violent reentry, a plummeting star in the midst of the frozen space. And then Tibril noticed the sizes. These ships were all above a kilometer, with the hooked prow monsters clocking in at over five kilometers. They dwarfed any ship in Citadel space. Without Element Zero. Any hope of encountering a technologically inferior species had just been dashed.

The size of these monsters dwarfed even the defending fleet.

The other fleet was bred for war. That much Tibril was certain of. Blocky and ominous, these ships were high volume behemoths, comparable in length to many Turian ships, but wider and taller down the entire length of the ship.

The cruiser tonnage ships looked like a rifle, built up around a singular long tube, with a forked bow protruding from their dark grey hulls. The armored plating, almost like a shield protecting the twin engine pods on either side of the stern, hosted a huge white creature, unfamiliar to the Turians of his crew. Around the cruiser’s flanks were scattered ranks of what must be fighter-bombers, black triangular vessels with broad vertical fin protruding from their tails.

Their dreadnoughts left him in awe. Huge octagonal pillars of metal and might, tapering in steps to the flat muzzle of a spinal cannon, gun emplacements nestled into every nook and cranny. Tibril knew what heavy armor plating looked like. He had never seen it like this. Massive twin engines were mounted aft in a vertical pair. Their gaping maws looked like they could swallow his cruisers whole.

Drifting amongst the fleet were what could only be described as massive guns with a space station build around them. The size of the gun rivaled the size of Turian heavy cruisers. Ordinarily, the scale of these weapons would raise questions about their necessity, after all, what enemy could possibly require that power? Having seen the sleek aggressor fleet however, Tibril suddenly began to understand the paranoia and overcompensation.

And then there was the debris. The battle lines of both fleets were ravaged. Opposite the massive guns of the defending space stations were thousands of twinkling shards of metal. The cracked hulls of one of the leviathan warships spun lazily in the void, torn asunder by the might of the stations. Scattered throughout the remainder of the attacking fleet were some of the smaller vessels, with holes blown clean through them. Others had been torn into shreds by what must have been an incredibly powerful explosive force.

Amongst the defenders drifted still burning hulks of the monolithic metal beasts. Dreadnoughts that to Tibril had seemed undamaged continued to spin on their axis, revealing still glowing, decks deep, gashes down their entire length. Huge holes and pockets had been burned out of the heavy armor of these titanium beasts, exposing the congealed mess that used to be the decks below. The defending cruisers could be found snapped in half, entire levels exposed to the void of space.

It was carnage, a battle that in citadel space would have gone down in history as a calamity, a truly tragic loss of life. The space in orbit of Vita III was filled with automated messages bouncing from ship to ship, but to the Turian’s first contact message there was no response. The planet might as well have been dead.

Tibril hailed Victus and ordered the Corvus to land troops in the city below, where he could see a massive excavation site marring the land. In the crater of the excavation was a massive metal bowl, dozens of times the size of the metropolis below. Fires raged through the grasslands surrounding the city, turning the orbital images taken by Corvus into a smear of smoke and ash. The devastation inflicted on the city itself was no better. Buildings had collapsed, either taken down by weapons, or by whatever had been used to dig out the crater.

On the outskirts of the city was the wreck of one of the attacking ships. Whether taken out by the native population, or left to its own devices after the pulse, Victus had no clue.

As Corvus approached the city, certain signs of war became more and more apparent. Tanks and armored cars littered the street, arrayed amongst purple and blue vehicles that matched those in orbit. Smoldering hulks cast city streets in a bizarre glow. Paper and rubble debris covered the streets.

It was chaos frozen in time, a pitched battle without noise, violence, or explosions. Victus had seen the remains of battlefields before in his life, but never like this. Never so raw, so fresh, so unresolved. There was a tension in the air, as if at any moment, the combatants would reappear and resume their desperate struggle.

And what a struggle it must have been. As Corvus hovered meters over the city, her cameras scoured the terrain below for any sign of a threat. Victus watched the viewscreens flicker from angle to angle, each shot looking for intel on the planet below.

He saw primitive helmets and rifles. He saw machine guns behind sandbag barricades, grenade craters. He saw the signs of lasts stands, desperate assaults, and vicious charges in hundreds of different alleys. Victus could see the stories in the images, his tactical mind imagining a Turian cabal sheltered behind every makeshift barricade and chokepoint. He could see a slaughter unlike any of the conflicts he had ever supervised.

There is where a team would have been cornered, the burns on the wall behind them are likely the shots that ended the squad. That rifle marks where a sniper once was, roosted in the heights of the skyscrapers. Those vehicles were part of an evacuation effort, and their strategy would have worked against a Turian attacker. The strategy and mindset of a species at war so familiar to the Turian. In the space left behind where only a corpse could have lain, he imagined himself, slain in battle so familiar to his Turian mind.

Below him, Victus could read the scenes of war like a book, and the story it told was a tragedy. A desperate defense, with nowhere left to run. The advertisem*nts in the city offered Victus his first glance into the defending populace. Their smiling, almost Asari faces plastered across skyscraper facades gave Victus a pang of grief, imagining no longer a shapeless combatant behind the machine guns of the city, but a being that looked so familiar. He could almost feel the spirit of these beings left behind in their fight, aching for resolution, aching for a populace to inspire.

He could see the faces of his comrades in the Citadel Defense Force and the faces of the Asari children that would watch in awe every time the Corvus docked on the Citadel. And now they were all gone, whatever the war and that pulse had done to them. The only people left to mourn their loss knew nothing about them, or their way of life. Did they bury their dead? Or did they burn them? Sink them in the ocean? There are no bodies, it hardly matters. How could he possibly pay respects to the beings that perished on the planet below? How had the spirit of these people, this planet, inspired them to fight a losing war? So many questions Victus wanted to ask the people of the planet, about themselves, their war, and their story.

Victus was under orders to clear the city, and find out what he could about the species’ military technology. The same pulse that wiped out Essus must have taken out both sides of this battle, so Victus did not expect any resistance or survivors. His objective would be easy. But Victus wouldn’t stop there. He needed to find resolution, not just for himself but for the people of this city and the spirit of this world. This race, Asari in face, and Turian in heart, would get their answer. Victus would not let them slide unknown into the void of death. Somebody had to remember their story.

~~~~~~~~

Admiral Tibril was an observant Turian. But, in the debris field around Vita III, there were thousands of objects slowly spinning. Hundreds more stationary and undamaged, maintaining their position. To pay attention to all the ruined hulks drifting in orbit was impossible. Dozens of superheavy hulls cluttered the debris field, each one insignificant against the backdrop of the battle. Across the dead fleet, a cacophony of electrical signals from malfunctioning electrical sub-systems and unattended reactors fills Kilware’s sensors with noise.

So when the Marathon class heavy cruiser UNSC Triumph quietly stops her slow rotation for the first time in six weeks, not a soul in the Turian defense fleet notices.

Nobody sees the twin muzzles of her 49F9A1 MACs come to rest pointed at the Kilware across the dense debris field, nor the superheavy slugs waiting in their barrels.

Nobody knows what the Sanghelli used to say in whispers about the UNSC:

How they didn’t know when to quit.

Chapter 2: Whispers in the Void

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Whispers in the Void

//

//Request Received….Authorization Accepted: HDY 0712-4….Executing….Files Retrieved

//UNSC Home Fleet Battlenet:

//FILE 1:

//CSG-6 Standing orders:

//Issued: FADM J. Harper, 5th Fleet, Date: 2552.10.20

1: DEFEND CAIRO BATTLECLUSTER (ATHENS, MALTA, CAIRO)

2: Resist Covenant Landfall (NUCLEAR WEAPONS AUTHORIZED)

3: Prioritize DESTRUCTION of Covenant HVTs (CAS Type Carriers)

AMENDMENT: FADM J. Harper, Date: 2552.10.21

4: ATHENS and MALTA destroyed: Prioritize protection of CAIRO

AMENDMENT: FADM J. Harper, Date: 2552.10.27

5: REPEL Covenant Navy Reinforcements AT ALL COSTS

6: Prevent Landing of Covenant Ground Reinforcements AT ALL COSTS

7: Deny Enemy Orbital Control AT ALL COSTS

8: THIS IS OUR STAND. HOLD THE LINE: MAKE THE f*ckERS PAY. GOOD HUNTING.

AMENDMENT: HDY 0712-4, Date: 2552.11.3

9: CA-755 Command Staff Deceased. Recommend Transfer of Command under UNSC.11.189.232.1. Respond.

AMENDMENT: HDY 0712-4, Date: 2552.12.17

10: Unknown Contacts in SOL System. Complete Loss of Contact with FADM J. Harper, CSG-6 personnel, and UNSC HIGHCOM. HDY 0712-4 Assuming CSG-6 and CA-755 Command Under Regulation: UNSC.11.189.233.4 (Emergency Authorization of AI Command).

11: UPHOLD General Order 098831A-1 ‘COLE PROTOCOL’. Prevent Seizure of UNSC Assets by Unknown Contacts.

//

//File 2

//HDY 0712-4 Battle Strategy Analysis, Date: 2552.12.17

Unknown forces in 5th fleet debris field. Presumed hostile pursuant to UNSC.09.034.111.2 (Unidentified Forces in Active Warzone). Fleet strength 45 warships, 2 cruisers, 43 frigate and below, clustered together in tight defensive formation. Two more auxiliaries arrived today. Are these forces behind the pulse that murdered my crew? Currently unable to decipher their coms. Signal security is low, almost as if they want to be heard. Possible innocent party? Its Earth, can’t take the risk. I won’t let my crew’s sacrifice go to waste. I don’t know who else is left. Is this fear? We’ve given up too much to let give up Earth without a fight. We have insufficient UNSC forces at hand. We have one chance. Once they know Triumph is here, it’s over. I’ll make it count. Long live the UNSC.

STRATEGY ANALASYS: NUCLEAR FIRST STRIKE RECOMMENDED.

DESIGNATE: BATTLEPLAN CRIMSON

DETAILS: SEE ATTACHED

//

//File 3

//CSG-6 Composition and Manifest. Query = ‘SHIVA’ (Last Updated 2552.11.3)

  1. CA-755 ‘TRUIMPH’, Marathon Class. CSG-6 FLAGSHIP. STATUS: ACTIVE

Ordnance: (MAC: 14 SH, 10 LW; SHIVA: DEPLETED; ARCHER: 5-13, 56-70; M66 SENTRY: 1052)

Notes: NONE

  1. CA-413 ‘FEELING LUCKY’, Marathon Class. STATUS: CATASTROPHIC DAMAGE

Ordnance: (MAC: BOTH INCAPACITAITED; SHIVA: 4 (SILOS 1&2 INCAPACITAITED); ARCHER: DEPLETED; M66 SENTRY: MOUNTS 4-6 INCAPACITAITED, 2034)

Notes: SHIVA Control Disabled Under UNSC.11.182.113.4 (Derelict Ship Weapons Procedure), Requires manual UNSC Officer’s Override to Enable.

  1. FFG-307 ‘AEGIS FATE’, Charon Class. STATUS: ACTIVE

Ordnance: (MAC: 17 LW, ARCHER: DEPLETED, 50MM: 194)

Notes: NONE

  1. FFG-316 ‘CONCORD DAWN’, Charon Class. STATUS: DESTROYED
  2. FFG-214 ‘ALABASTER SKY’, Stalwart Class. STATUS: DESTROYED
  3. FFG-184 ‘HIGHTOWER’, Stalwart Class. STATUS: DESTROYED
  4. FFG-122 ‘BUMP IN THE NIGHT’, Stalwart Class. STATUS: COMMUNICATION LOST

Ordnance: CURRENT LEVELS UNKNOWN

Notes: NONE

  1. FFG-161 ‘IVORY TOWER’, Stalwart Class. STATUS: ACTIVE

Ordnance: (MAC: DEPLETED, ARCHER: 1-3, 13-16, M340A4 STREAK: DEPLETED, M870 RAMPART: 729)

Notes: NONE

//

//CA-755 ‘TRIUMPH’, Date: 2552.12.18

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet.HomeFleet.5Fleet.CSG-6:

<CA-413 ‘FEELING LUCKY’ REQESTING ACTING CO, CSG-6>

<LONG RANGE INTENSIVE SCAN DETECTED>

<INVESTIGATE ORIGIN?>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Negative Feeling Lucky. Find me RADM A. Crawley’s neural link.

<WAITING…>

<FOUND: RADM Amanda Crawley. CO, CA-413 ‘FEELING LUCKY’>

<Service ID: 08094-30061-AC>

<STATUS:DECEASED>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Activate her SOS beacon. Designate her as ‘ACTIVE’ and return access privileges to her neural link.

<WAITING…>

<DONE>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): I see your primary and secondary reactors were destroyed during the attack. I assume SHIVA and Archer targeting is offline?

<AFFIRMATIVE>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Spin down your auxiliary reactors and cut power to all systems except the central bridge console.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): When that’s done display the power and damage schematic of the ship on Lucky’s console. As soon as Crawley approaches the console, prompt her for manual auxiliary systems re-activation.

<WAITING…>

<DONE>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Once we receive manual auxiliary systems re-activation authorization, prompt our dear Admiral for SHIVA reactivation and control transfer to Triumph. Keep the prompt low key and unintrusive. Format 1a. Don’t turn the power back on until “Admiral Crawley” gives me SHIVA access.

<WAITING…>

<ACKNOWLEDGED>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Delete all records of this order, and wipe the ship’s combat logs. Destroy any data that isn’t vital to the SHIVA launch systems.

<WAITING…>

<DONE>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Good work Feeling Lucky.

<ACKNOWLEDGED>

//

----------------------------------------------

“Admiral Tibril, Sir.” announced the communications officer on Kilware’s bridge, “Xiphos has initiated the deep scan of the debris field you ordered. She should be able to tell what kind of power these wrecks are running on, as well as if we somehow missed any eezo.”

“Good, report back to me when…”

“Sir, unencrypted communication from the debris field! Origin appears to be INSIDE of one of the defending dreadnoughts. It’s a short message, broadcasting on all frequencies, and repeating regularly. Without knowing its content sir…” the young officer rambled on, talking a mile a minute. It was one thing to be relaying messages and directing fleet traffic on the frontier. When you are surrounded by eviscerated wrecks quadruple your mass? Nerves start talking. Tibril cuts his officer off.

“Just give me your guess Lieutenant.”

“In my experience, sir, that means an SOS.”

SOS? Had his scan triggered some kind of automated distress beacon? It would fit. Turian R&D had often floated the idea of a distress beacon that would only go active when it detected a ship in range. It would allow a crew to have a distress message ready for decades without power, not the months the internal power supply of current models allowed for. Of course, ideally you tapped into the ship’s power, but that’s not always possible. Like if your ship happened to get gutted by a 5km long behemoth. Had the Xiphos scan notified shipboard systems about the presence of potential rescue ships?

Tibril ordered his Kilware’s sensors focused on the distress source. The goliath ship was off Kilware’s starboard bow, slowly dancing in space, clearly without power. As it rotated around, he could see the cause. A huge gash ran down the entire length of the ship, carving deep into the hull, and cooking the vessel from the inside out. Huge chunks of armor plating had been ejected and drifted lazily around the wreck. Detritus streamed out of the rifts in the hull, leaving a long trail as the dreadnought drifted away from wherever it once had been. On the other side, antenna, weapons mounts, and crew modules appeared to be blown out into space from the inside. The damage was catastrophic. Tibril was frankly surprised that she hadn’t atomized herself. With an eezo core, she certainly would have. The advantages of primitive space travel I suppose.

The coms officer highlighted the origin of the SOS. It came from a small protrusion underneath the giant’s bow. As the image on his screen zoomed in on the source, Tibril was taken aback. He saw a small glass enclosed platform in the corner of one of the staggered steps near the bow, reminiscent of the bridge on older pleasure cruisers, where the stunning views made up for the numerous safety violations.

The glass had been shattered and blown out of its frames. It was protected on either side by heavy plates jutting out from the hull but could still be seen from many angles. Fools. All this power, and you put your command crew in a glass box? The jagged hole cut into the ship began a dozen meters above the bridge. The story told itself. In the first second of being fired upon, the blast would have shattered the bridge windows, spacing the entire command staff. I suppose against a weapon like that, it wouldn’t have made much difference anyways.

Indeed, a certain element of Tibril admired the cavalier attitude of this species. To be able to look out at the black stary veil of space while driving a kilometer long pillar of might. He’d be willing to try it once or twice. Provided nobody shot at him.

The signal location was ideal. An SOS signal coming from the bridge? He could retrieve some valuable intelligence, not even to mention the potential technology buried in the destroyed ship. Still, he could be walking his infiltration team into a trap. Set by who? The command crew that was spaced in milliseconds? The survivors who were wiped out by the pulse, just like on Essus?

The risk was worth the reward. And Tibril trusted his Cabals to be careful.

“Coms, get me a Cabal and contact Xiphos for a technological advisor. We’re answering this SOS. It’s time to figure out what’s going on here.”

-------------------------------------------------

Victus watched his ground team from the Corvus’s bridge. The live feed from all 12 squad members were splashed across the viewscreen. They had landed their shuttle in a plaza in the dense downtown area of the city, with orders to explore and take everything that wasn’t nailed down with them. Signs of heavy fighting surrounded them. Corners were blown off buildings. Walls were stitched in crisscrossing lines of pockmarks and burns. Overturned and burnt-out vehicles littered the streets. Sandbag fortifications and strange purple crates formed the respective battle lines.

Corvus’ team moved in. One of the soldiers picked up a rifle dropped amongst a pile of clothes and gear. The heft surprised him. He gave the squad lead a questioning look.

“Go ahead, see what they can do,” the team lead told him with a shrug.

The soldier took a long look at the rifle, which had a pistol grip and a trigger familiar to the Turian. The rifle was long, with a trapezoidal rail attached to the front of the rifle. On top of the rail was an optical scope, with a crosshair, range finding correction markings, and a foreign text. He could see no seams or joints where the weapon could potentially be collapsed like the Turian’s weapons. The Turian swung the rifle up to his shoulder, aimed at a destroyed vehicle, and pulled the trigger. A rapid-fire trio of cracks split his ears, the acrid smell of burning gunpowder filled his nose, and the rifle jerked back into his shoulder, sending three brass cases skittering across the plaza.

“Sprits. Who builds this kind of weapon?” the Turian yelped. And with chemical propellent? No wonder these poor bastards got their asses kicked. Kicks like a krogan too.

Still, he’d like to see what these rounds could do. Seemed like overkill for anything without kinetic barriers. Wait, the symbols on the back of this rail are different than before. He squeezed off another quick burst, and watched the symbols rapidly change and then stop. Bingo.

“Sir, there might be numerals on this rifle. Come check this out.”

As the squad lead walked over, Victus leaned in. Numbers were the first step to understanding any language. And perhaps more importantly, a culture’s technology. This could be their first steps towards creating a translation for this species.

“This rifle fires in three round bursts, sir. If this is an ammo counter, we can figure out how their counting system works. Here, look,” using his omni-tool, he quickly jotted down the current symbols and then fired again. The symbols changed again. The soldier recorded these and then started fumbling around with the weapon.

“If I can just….there!” He grunted as he pulled a heat-sink like box on the rear of the rifle before finding a release switch. He took out a magazine filled with cartridges and started taking the individual rounds out and counting them.

“I count 26 in the magazine, and with one in the chamber that makes 27. Which means, these numbers mean 27. And the symbols on the rifle now….” he says as he flips the rifle back over, looking at two different red symbols, “with only the round in the chamber, the first numeral is zero, and the second is 1!”

The squad leader clapped the Turian on the back and began to walk forwards, “Good work Varso, stick that in your pack, we’ll give it to the eggheads back on Corvus when we’re done here. Let’s roll!”

As the squad moved down the narrowing streets they zig-zagged between stranded vehicles, makeshift barricades, and locked doors leading into buildings. They looked above them where the gray residences stretched up stories above their heads, a series of balconies and thin cables crossing between them. Graffiti written in languages they couldn’t understand was scribbled across abandoned walls. Were they the last manifesto of a rebellious teen? A motivational message from evacuated civilians to the soldiers fighting in the streets?

(Remember Reach)

(f*ck the UNSC)

(The end is near REPENT!)

Varso trailed his had along the walls, taking careful time to inspect every minute detail of the streets. A flowerpot, wilting tulip left un-watered. He picked up some kind of stuffed animal, abandoned and trampled in what must have been a hasty rush to escape the onslaught. A toy soldier lay next to it, dark brown skin and asari face, dressed in the all too familiar garb scattered across the streets and alleys of the city, face contorted in a heroic yell. Varso remembered receiving a similar plaything from his father, decades ago. To inspire your military ambition, he told me. Varso remembers his father’s smile when he came home from a tour. How he would join Varso in imaginary battles against an impossible foe, led by the toy Turian soldier. Looking back, I don’t know why he bought it. I was always excited for my conscription. He knew I didn’t need a toy to inspire me…

Varso could remember those days fondly, back when life was so simple. When school and his dinner were his largest concerns in his life. Back when war was a fun fantasy. Back when a mission didn’t mean a chance at never seeing a brother again. He was proud of his service, of course he was. He was a Turian after all. It was his purpose, his cause. To protect his people, his honor, and his family. He wondered if these foreign soldiers, who were wiped from the face of the planet without a trace, ever though the same way.

Were they scared when the attackers came? Did they put on a brave face for their children? Did they think of honor? Curse their luck? What kept them from turning and running? What empowered them to stand their ground?

Varso wishes beyond all else that he could ask one of them, to reach across the void and meet them. Hear their story.

Varso stared at the toy for a few more long heartbeats, before reaching back and slipping it into his bag, alongside the stuffed animal. They playthings jostled against the heavy rifle as Varso got up and moved to catch up with the team, stopping briefly to inspect the city surveillance camera watching the alley.

They emerged from the hallway into an even larger courtyard. The street looped around some kind of central monument, where a small dome supported by concrete pillars raised above some kind of a station or device. Shrubbery and strange tanks surrounded the monument, and the signs of battle marked the streets.

The squad lead carefully approached and inspected one of the tanks scattered near the monument. He rapped his knuckles on the bright orange side and listened to the hollow clang inside. He held his omni-tool near some kind of breathing apparatus before it beeped. Traces of methane? In a breathing mask? So then the tank is a breathing apparatus to survive here?

“There’s methane in this tank Captain Victus.”

In orbit, Victus snapped his head up to the screen, “You’re sure?” The squad lead responded in the affirmative. Spirits. Methane breathers on a planet with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. This meant that this attacking species didn’t evolve here. And none of the methane bearing planets in the system showed any sign of native life, the initial scans from the Xiphos had confirmed it. This isn’t some local war between two races from the same system. The attackers aren’t from here.

It all clicked. The size of the attacking fleet, the difference in ship design, the fanaticism of the defense. And to get to Vita III? No species is making an interstellar voyage on sublight engines to launch an invasion. Not with this scale of destruction. The logistics just don’t work. Which means somewhere in the debris field around him, there were FTL drives that didn’t rely on eezo. This could revolutionize space travel, untether the Citadel from the relays, depending on the speed of the drives.

In a flurry of activity Victus and the bridge team contacted Kilware, leaving the ground team unattended.

So when, Varso approached the monument, and he felt a chill run up his spine, the squad was alone.

As his heartrate spiked, he slowly looked around him. He’d had this feeling once before, right before walking into a pirate ambush on some backwater world bordering the Terminus. Back then, his squad had lost three men. And now, he was feeling it again.

He carefully scanned the street around him. The city was eerily silent. No animals. No civilians. No gunfire. Just silence. Nothing was out of place, and yet somehow everything was.

Varso was certain they were being watched.

The squad noticed his reaction and dropped into crouches, setting a defensive line around the monument, the squad leader silently working his way over to Varso. Varso’s eyes jumped from balcony to balcony, street to street. Searching for an enemy he was certain existed. Somehow, on this dead world, somebody was monitoring their every move. He could feel it, the eyes trained on the back of his head.

Varso took gentle, controlled, breaths. Almost praying for the snap of a bullet to break the tension and return the world to motion.

And then, the machine in the center of the monument started ringing.

The squad snapped around and trained their weapons at the machine. It rang again, a long pulse and then silence for a second. It rang twice more, all while the squad watched motionless.

“Varso, go check it out,” the squad lead ordered in a near inaudible whisper. Varso took slow and careful steps, one after the other, approaching the machine. Holding his rifle in one hand, he carefully lifted the handle on the mechanism. It lifted a curved piece, attached to the machine and when it was free, the ringing stopped. He examined the piece and saw a speaker and a microphone embedded in it. A public communication device? He lifted it to his ear.

“Hello?”

He got no answer. Varso didn’t know why he bothered. This was a dead world. They were just chasing dust and echoes. He put the receiver down and walked back to the squad. The ringing didn’t resume.

Varso felt a drop of liquid on his head. Then another. And another. He looked up to see an overcast sky, the skies opening to rain on their heads. He checked his omni-tool: water. Safe. The rain was constant now, a steady heartbeat in the otherwise silent city. Finally breaking the unresolved silence that filled the streets; a cleanse to wash away some of the stains of conflict.

Down the road, a car started flashing; bright red and blue lights accompanied by a loud siren.

As the squad stared at the spectacle, a traffic sign behind the car illuminated, its bright orange arrow directing to the right.

(“DETOUR, DETOUR, DETOUR…”)

At their feet a crosswalk on the road lit up in flashing white lights. An automated voice chimed from a hidden speaker:

(“WALK SIGN IS ON. PLEASE CROSS”)

While the Turians could not understand the voice, they had a few guesses.

“Some kind of city VI like on the Citadel? Could it be giving evacuation instructions with traffic signs?”

“I don’t know sir.”

“Ground team, this is Corvus. We’re taking these messages and using them to compile a translation program. Follow the messages, and record more.”

“Affirmative Corvus”

And so, the Turian squad walked off into the rainfall, footprints left in their wake being gently washed away.

Behind them, the traffic camera watched on in silence, rotating to follow the group as they disappeared down the street.

-------------------------------------

Maelal Ozor was a curious Salarian, in more ways than one. To his Asari crewmates on Xiphos, he was a bizarre technician signed on to the team for his mechanical expertise, a last minute addition to the hastily assembled mission into unknown space. A token Salarian presence in the relay expedition, while the STG patrolled Terminus space affected by the pulse. In a crew of consummate professionals, centuries old Asari scientists who pursued the truth of the universe with a delicate hand, his childlike scramble for any hint of new technology was simultaneously off-putting and endearing.

Ozor had once considered joining the STG. He certainly had the mind for it, his test scores far above his peers. But Ozor wanted to share his discoveries with the world, to be able to grab the person next to him and tell them about all the fascinating things he had discovered. The cloak-and-dagger status quo of the Salarian intelligence services would never had fit him. He would have found himself either alone and depressed, or in front of a firing squad for divulging state secrets. So he went into civilian science, and was soon studying the relays, taking part in research missions to the furthest flung relays, trying to discern the grand mysteries of the galaxy’s prevailing FTL method. He had studied the citadel, trawled the underbelly of the massive station, following keepers, trying to figure out how the station worked.

And now, he was onboard a shuttle, EVA suit on, with a Turian Cabal surrounding him. Their target? The bridge of a gargantuan alien dreadnought. And estimated 10-15 million tons of warship with no apparent mass reducing technology, in a 1km long warship that dwarfed anything ship in Citadel space. And something had carved it stem to stern, ripping through meters of titanium alloy, living spaces, and crew members alike. And, if the reports from the ground team were true, somewhere in this debris field was a brand new, eezo-less method of FTL travel.

Ozor was in heaven. He was on the precipice of a great scientific discovery. He would soon learn things that nobody in the galaxy (well, nobody still alive) knew. He could explore a whole new world of technology. A brand-new realm of science. Could he pioneer a new study of whatever this species was? Could he introduce a new technological commodity to the universe. He could be rich; he could be famous. But to Ozor, that didn’t matter, as long as he got explore this novel world. He could spend the rest of his short Salarian life in this debris field alone, wandering the halls of ships long since destroyed.

He looked around the transport shuttle, at the stoic Turian Cabal surrounding him. A group of soldiers who could kill him in an instant, who had seen combat on dozens of worlds, who could lift unthinkable mass with their minds using the power of biotics. They could never understand the gravity of this moment. All they saw were the dangers. They couldn’t see the opportunity, only another objective. They didn’t see a new technological marvel, they saw the ship that got its entire crew killed.

So as the ship rapidly approached the derelict, Ozor knew that he needed to make the most of this trip. To push the boundaries. To discover what he could in the little time they would have.

“Prepare for EVA,” announced the pilot’s voice over the comms system. The Turian at the rear of the shuttle grabbed the long tether attached to the wall of the shuttle and hooked it on himself. The other Turians in the cabal inspected each other and their seals. Ozor felt the Turian behind him pat down his seals and breathing equipment, before reaching around to give him an ‘OK’ signal. He was good to go.

The atmosphere was lowly pumped out of the crew cabin, before the rear hatch silently opened. The Turian with the tether gently pushed off, using the tiny thrusters in his suit to guide himself towards the ruined bridge of the dreadnought. As he crossed the abyss, Ozor glimpsed the bright sunlight reflecting off the titanium plating surrounding the bridge, the huge white lettering stretched across the hull above it.

(Feeling Lucky)

As he reached the bridge, Ozor watched the Turian drifted in through the shattered windows, and past two chairs that stretched out over empty space; their occupants legs would have dangled over the glass panel that would have provided a magnificent view below the ship. Now, it was all ruined. The upholstery on the chairs had been scorched away by the heat of the blast, and the metal had been warped and twisted by the thermal radiation of whatever destroyed this ship. Two shattered monitors suspended from roof would have displayed vital ship information Ozor suspected. The Turian clipped the tether to the frame of one of the chairs, giving it a firm yank to ensure it was secure. He waved to the Turians still on the shuttle. One by one, they clipped onto the tether, and pulled themselves across the gap onto the bridge. The Turian guiding Ozor clipped them both to the tether, and then navigated them across the gap. Feeling his feet hit the deck of the bridge, and his magnetic soles activate, he unclipped and observed the ruined bridge.

The bridge consisted of a lower level ringed with workstations along the walls. At the front of the lower level were the command chairs they had clipped the tether to. Workstations near the front were scorched and warped, while those further aft, away from the opening were undamaged. There were the tattered remains of uniforms on many of the chairs, and with some sorrow, Ozor realized he could see matching uniforms drifting outside that had must have belonged to crew sucked out into space. A terrifying, miserable fate.

Towards the inside of this lower ring, was a raised platform, no more than a meter above the lower deck. Another rings of seats and consoles formed the perimeter of this platform, and in the center stood what could only have been a Captain’s chair. Monitors and manual controls littered the ceiling, giving the bridge the feeling of an old school freighter, just with far more technology and subsystems and far lest rust. Behind the swiveling command chair was a long table with a glass surface, and at one end, was some kind of pedestal, where the room opened into standing space before encountering the stout sealed bulkhead separating the bridge from the rest of the ship. Above this pedestal was some kind of flashing diagram of the ship, the lone light on the bridge.

All the lights scattered across bridge were dark. Not surprising, the ship must have either lost power or shutdown her reactors to avoid a detonation.

As the Turian cabal cleared the bridge, Ozor made his way up the steps to the command chair. He saw a flashing light nestled in a tattered uniform underneath a damaged console forward of the command chair. The console had been smashed, cracking the screen and leaving a sickening dent in the housing for the keyboard. This crewmember must have been flung into the console by the decompression. At the speeds needed to inflict this kind of damage, certainly fatal, at least assuming Asari physiology. Small mercy. Faster than asphyxiation. He worked to untangle the flashing metal object from the uniform, taking care to glance at the badge on the uniform’s chest.

(UNSC Feeling Lucky)

(Crawley)

There were rank insignias on the shoulders and collar of the dark grey uniform. Gold highlights and devices shone brightly in the sunlit bridge. In a large patch on the shoulder, a creature identical to the ones painted on the sides of the ships. The same animal, this time in gold, adorned the collar. Ozor had seen enough military uniforms to know what this much gold meant.

He looked at the flashing device he had picked up. At one end was a plate, which appeared designed to fit flat against whatever the device was installed on. From the plate protruded a flat and broad piece of circuitry. It looked to Ozor like some kind of implant. If that were the case, these interfaces on the perimeter of the broad circuitry were probably biometrics.

Ozor brought his omni-tool up to the device. It beeped rapidly, the same signal the commander the Turian fleet had played the team in the briefing room prior to the mission. The implant was transmitting the SOS.

“Captain? I found the mission objective. It looks to be some kind of implant. Based on the shape, and assuming Asari biology, it appears to be surgically implanted into the back of the skull. With technology of the ship’s species, and size of the device, likely has advanced biometrics in addition to IFF and distress capabilities. The uniform indicates this individual was likely high rank…” Ozor rambled on, before the Cabal leader cut him off.

“Shut up and give me that Salarian. Kilware, we have accomplished the primary mission objective,” the Cabal leader started walking away while talking, past the pedestal. As he moved by the pedestal, a prompt flashed next to the diagram of the ship. Ozor’s amphibian eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. Did the system react to the implant?

“Captain, don’t move! That implant might be providing access to the ship’s systems. If I get power reactivated, we might be able to…” he trailed off as he inspected the diagram.

It depicted a wireframe of the ship, covered in red and black along the path of the gash in the hull. Elsewhere was marked green. In the rooms with green markings, a yellow lightning bolt icon flashed red. A lightning bolt. A symbol for electricity perhaps? Likely. Towards the aft of the ship, there were enormous modules, the largest two of which were colored black, with red warnings flashing on them. If this is anything like our ships, those will be the power generation plants. Black must mean destroyed, since the path of black modules matches path of gash in the hull. If I can find an auxiliary reactor and reactivate it… His eyes scanned the diagram and found a pair of modules nestled in the bowels of the ship, identical to shape and form to the larger reactors, but this time one of the reactors was highlighted in green, the same color as the undamaged portions of the ship.

On a hunch, he quickly memorized the symbols marking the undamaged auxiliary reactor.

(Auxiliary Fusion Reactor #2)

And, as he analyzed the message that had appeared when the captain approached, he saw the very same markings in the message.

(Auxiliary Fusion Reactor #2 is operational, but shutdown. Restart?)

The system must be asking him to restart the reactor. It makes sense. Keep the ship offline to conserve fuel and power, and offer a reset when a high ranking officer approached. With luck restarting the reactor would restore power to the bridge systems. That’s if I’m right. Or it could be some kind of trap. But if I tell the captain that I don’t know for sure, he’ll shut me down, and we will never learn anything.

“Captain, I can get the power restarted from here, using an undamaged auxiliary reactor.”

“Are you sure Salarian?”

“Yes,” Ozor lied through his teeth.

“Do it, the ship’s crew are dead. They won’t be attacking anybody. A little power in here could help us recover some evidence of what happened here.”

He nodded. Now how do I actually interact with the system? On the small screen below the hologram there were two options, one green and one red. Ozor looked back at the model. Green undamaged, Red is damaged. Green good, red bad in this culture? He stared at the screen. Here goes nothing. He pressed the green button. The bridge remained silent, lights off. A new prompt appeared.

(SHIVA warheads locked down under UNSC.11.182.113.4 (Derelict Ship Weapons Procedure). CSG-6 standing orders permit use of nuclear weapons. CA-413 is incapacitated. CA-755 requests command and control of SHIVA warheads. Release SHIVA warheads for CA-755 command and control?)

Ozor pondered the new message. Nothing had happened yet. Is this some kind of confirmation message? Auxiliary systems needed for reactor start? Once more he hit the green button on the screen.

For a second, nothing happened. And then Ozor felt a gentle rumble through the soles of his feet, which shortly resolved into a gentle hum. Once by one, the lights on the bridge flashed on, red emergency lighting bathing the dark recesses of the bridge. Consoles lit up across the space, and monitors were brought to life displaying whatever information they were designed to. The door in the bulkhead chimed and opened in response to the Turian standing near it.

“Aha! Success!” Ozor had figured out an alien technology system.

“Good work. Take the implant Salarian, and see what you can access on these monitors, while we take a look around past this door,” the Cabal ordered, handing off the aforementioned device as he and the team disappeared down the hallway outside the door.

Ozor was about to be let loose on an alien’s ships bridge with an officer’s access codes and dozens of terminals to examine. Suck it STG.

Ozor got to work, reaping the benefits of his confidence.

---------------------------------------------

The rain worsened as the afternoon faded to night. What had started as a sprinkle was now a downpour. The Corvus ground team hugged the buildings as they worked their way through the streets of New Mombasa, following the mysterious VI’s signs. For hours they had been following the signs. Sometimes they lost the trail, only to be quickly brought back on track by a car’s siren or roadblock. One time they were brought back to the path by a machine spitting out hundreds of coins.

Varso picked up what he thought might be useful as he went, his pack slowly filling up with abandoned weapons and relics of the deserted city. He felt like a scavenger picking his way through the aftermath of a warzone, looking to make a cheap buck. He felt wrong. He wishes he could have helped.

Everywhere they go, the see reminders of the people of the city. An advertisem*nt, with smiling children’s faces. Propaganda posters, depicting brave soldiers in their gear, pointing at an unknown foe.

He scans the skyline, wondering what this city looked like before its war. A huge tower, with rings supporting a study framework, reached partially into the sky. At the top, it was broken. It was a space elevator. Or at least it once was. It had collapsed, its upper half flung away into orbit, and its lower half scattered for hundreds of miles across the savannah. What he would have given to ride it just once. The space elevator’s profile would have been a feature of the city, a mighty tether disappearing into the clouds. As it was, it was just a monument to what could have been.

It would have been the economic center of the city, a huge tool for commerce. Had the citizens of the city, still been around, it would have taken years to rebuild. I guess it doesn’t really matter.

As they walk, a comfortable monotony sets in for Varso. The rain continues to pour. They weave between cars and down alleys. Every so often a sign will flicker to an arrow to show them directions. Varso has no clue where they are being led. He just hopes it will have some answers.

As they move on, the frequency of the VI’s interruptions increases. Traffic barricades pop out of the street when they take a wrong turn. Entire billboards light up with large arrows directing them. Now entire rows of machines were spitting out coins. The city had come alive with the eerie sounds of traffic warnings and automated messages.

The VI leads them to a large building, with a broad façade and stairs leading down into an underground area. A large sign presumably tells citizens where they are.

(Kikowani Station)

A long overhanging roof supported by thick concrete pillars serves to shelter the team from the pounding rain. Metal shutters are closed over the staircases, and Varso can hear the surging roar of floodwater somewhere down in the darkness. So much for finding an evacuation route.

The VI has suddenly gone quiet. No more signs. No more automated messages. Without warning their “companion” had left them. Without direction the team began to wander beneath the shelter of the buildings overhand. They meandered between pillars, investigated writing scrawled on the walls.

(This is the end)

(Help Us!)

Nobody on the squad spoke.

Varso rounded a pillar to find a suit of armor leaned up against the opposite side of the column. The armor was dark grey, with a large composite chest plate covered in straps and webbing. There were small writings on the flat surfaces, identifying inscriptions likely.

(UNSC)

(ODST)

The chest plate was scratched and nicked, the freshly reapplied coating already ruined by nights of heavy fighting. The under-suit was some form of fabric, flexible, resilient, painted in dark grey. The arms and legs were heavily armored, dark gray plates, their backs camouflaged in a subtle grey-green patten. The helmet had a light blue full-face visor, unlike anything they had come across so far. A white stripe ran from the forehead all the way back to the helmet. A sidearm lay by the soldier’s fingerless gloves, painted dark black with night-sights and a suppressor. Spec ops maybe?

And then he heard a series of beeps and the automated voice once again.

(“GOOD CITIZENS FOLLOW ORDERS”)

(“JOIN THE UNSC, BECOME A HERO TODAY”)

“What are you?” Varso didn’t expect an answer. He couldn’t speak its language, and neither could it. Useless VI. He looked around and saw the security camera on the pillar opposite him tracking his moment. What does it want with me? Its just a VI right? What does it care about me? Why take us here?

He turned back around and picked up the helmet. Inside on the visor, he could see a HUD still running. Peering into the helmet, he started switching the small buttons on the exterior of the helmet. Some kind of night vision. A map. Recordings? Audio Files? He reached around to put the helmet in is pack. As he slipped the helmet in, the voice chimed in again.

(“TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SAFETY OF PERSONAL ITEMS”)

(“PLEASE REPORT CRIMES AT NEAREST NMPD STATION”)

(“THANK YOU FOR HELPING OUR CITY!”)

More recordings in a language he couldn’t understand. He wishes he had a translator.

“Varso! There’s nothing here! Let’s head back to the shuttle and get dry,” called the squad lead. Varso took one last look at the former spec-ops soldier and the security camera watching him before turning his back and walking away.

------------------------------------------------

// CA-755 ‘TRUIMPH’, Date: 2552.12.18

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet.HomeFleet.5Fleet.CSG-6:

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Hailing Aegis Fate, Bump in the Night, Ivory Tower.

<FFG-161 ‘IVORY TOWER’ ACKNOWLEDGING>

<FFG-306 ‘AEGIS FATE’ ACKNOWLEDGING>

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6): Prepare for engagement according to BATTLEPLAN CRIMSON. Set ship wide condition ZEBRA.

<FFG-306 ‘AEGIS FATE’ WAITING….>

<FFG-161 ‘IVORY TOWER’ WAITING…>

<FFG-306 ‘AEGIS FATE’ DONE>

<FFG-161 ‘IVORY TOWER’ DONE>

//

// CA-755 ‘TRUIMPH’, Date: 2552.12.18

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet:

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet.5Fleet.CSG-6)): All surviving UNSC forces, set ship wide condition ZEBRA. Nuclear ordnance authorized. FLASH WARNING. Repeat. FLASH WARNING.

//

---------------------------------

//

// New Mombasa City Superintendent, Date: 2552.12.18

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet:

(Permissions: READ ONLY)

<HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet.5Fleet.CSG-6))>

<All surviving UNSC forces, set ship wide condition ZEBRA. Nuclear ordnance authorized. FLASH WARNING. Repeat. FLASH WARNING>

//

------------------------------------

The walk back to the shuttle had been a quiet one. The city VI had not said another word. No more directions. No more games. Instead, the storm had only gotten worse. The rain pounded the fireteam, drowning out the sound of their footsteps. The wind picked up, blowing sheets of rain in their faces. As the squad rushed to the shuttle, Varso took one last look around the haunted city, wondering if he would ever be allowed to return. To investigate more. Maybe one day I’ll find out what happened here.

And then all hell broke loose. All the cars in the square erupted into noise. The billboards on the tower walls started flashing. The automated voice returned; volume boosted beyond what they had ever encountered before. Every single viewscreen and monitor in the plaza was rapidly flashing red. Street barricades popped up and down, turning the plaza into a wave of motion.

(“TRAVELERS: BEWARE OF STRANGERS”)

(“WATCH FOR FALLING OBJECTS”)

(“RADIATION WARNING: SEEK FALLOUT SHELTERS”)

(“TRAVELERS: BEWARE OF STRANGERS”)

(“WATCH FOR FALLING OBJECTS”)

(“RADIATION WARNING: SEEK FALLOUT SHELTERS”)

(“TRAVELERS: BEWARE OF STRANGERS”)

(“WATCH FOR FALLING OBJECTS”)

(“RADIATION WARNING: SEEK FALLOUT SHELTERS”)

(“TRAVELERS: BEWARE OF STRANGERS”)

(“WATCH FOR FALLING OBJECTS”)

(“RADIATION WARNING: SEEK FALLOUT SHELTERS”)

(“TRAVELERS: BEWARE OF STRANGERS”)

All of the street signs were now pointing forwards, even the ones in opposite directions. Varso couldn’t make sense of the warnings. Before they had been directions. But they couldn’t go forwards down all these streets at once. So what was the VI pointing at? Not forwards. UP! Varso craned his head back to look at the sky. The clouds? He saw nothing. Come on VI, what are you trying to tell us? The sound continued, this time accompanied by some city-wide siren, which produced an fluctuating whine echoing across the city. The voices changed. The VI was trying something else.

(“NEW MOMBASA ORBITAL ELE….”)

(“DANGER: RESTRICTED AREA”)

(“NEW MOMBASA ORBITAL ELE….”)

(“DANGER: RESTRICTED AREA”)

(“NEW MOMBASA ORBITAL ELE….”)

(“DANGER: RESTRICTED AREA”)

The plaza was chaos. The team had spread back out into the raining courtyard to take up defensive positions. The rain and piercing sirens made Varso’s ears ring. The squad leader was yelling on the coms channel with Corvus, frantically trying to get a handle on the situation, “Corvus, thank spirits. Are you seeing this?!”

“Affirmative. Translation program isn’t quite done yet, we can’t help you.”

Varso continued to stare into the sky. The VI wanted them to know something. Red lights? Sirens? Loud noises? Was this a warning? The VI had changed its methods. It strayed from its default programming to react to our presence.

SPIRITS.

What if it ISN’T a VI? That would mean… The upwards arrow! Not the clouds but ORBIT! Spirits. The fleet. The debris field.

“CORVUS, SIR, This is Corporal Varso of the ground team! I DON’T THINK WE’RE DEALING WITH VI!” Varso screamed over the noise of the plaza and the thunder of the rain, “I think they have AI! I Repeat! The defending species HAVE FULL ARTIFICIAL INTELLEGENCE! THE CITY AI IS WARNING US ABOUT SOMETHING IN ORBIT!”

“You need to warn the fleet sir! They aren’t alone up there! NOW! There’s no time!”

-------------------

Victus whirled around, and shouted towards the engineers working on the translation software, “I need that translation ready now! There’s no time.”

“Its still compiling sir, if we run it now, we may encounter translation errors…”

“I don’t care, we need to make our intentions clear NOW, before we all get blown away. You’ve seen those damn monsters out there. Run the first contact message through the translator. Full power, all frequencies. I want this whole damned system to hear us.”

“Shouldn’t we run it past Kilware fir…” interjected the coms officer.

“I’ll warn them as soon as the message is out. There’s not time to transfer the translation program. Send it now. I’d rather be court marshalled than atomized,” Victus cut the coms officer off by slamming his fist on the console.

“Aye sir.”

-------------------------------

(“This is THS Corvus of Turian Ranking. We represent the Citadel council. We join your system with PEACEFUL meanings. We are look for source of power that hurt colony two week past. We have plus meaning, and are PEACEFUL. Repeat. PEACEFUL meanings. We are no angry. We intention good. Wanted to discover happen here. We wait your answer.)

(“This is THS Corvus of Turian Ranking...”)

“What the hell is Corvus transmitting?!” Tibril shouted across the room, “Get Victus on the screen!”

In a flash, Victus’ face appeared on the viewscreen: “I can explain later Admiral, but right now you need to get the fleet into defensive formation. Our ground team believes the defending force is capable of creating AI. The city’s AI was warning them about a threat in orbit.”

Tibril’s eyes widened, and he snapped off to his coms officer “Send word for the fleet to spread out. But make sure they adopt a defensive posture ONLY. I don’t want our message misunderstood. And tell Xiphos and Elia to get the hell out here. 30 times weapon range but stay in orbit. I don’t want these blasted AI to think we’re running for reinforcements.”

“Orders away sir.”

“Spirits, more crazy bastards with AI. When will people learn? Keep Corvus above the city Victus. I don’t want you travelling back through the debris field. What are you transmitting?”

“Our first contact message, run through an unfinished version of the translator. I felt we needed to make our intentions clear as soon as possible with those behemoths out there. The warning from the city AI was urgent, loud, and immediate. I assumed, well, to put it lightly sir, that sh*t was seconds away from hitting the fan.”

Tibril took a deep breath and sighed. He looked at the viewscreen: “Victus, you’re a good friend of mine. I’ve known you a long time, and I trust your judgement. But we’re going to discuss your subversion of the chain of command after this situation works itself out. Or spirits, if things really go south, I guess we might not. Damned AI! Spirits! We’ll talk about what your ground team found then too.”

“And now Admiral? What do we do now?”

“The only thing we can: wait for an answer. And pray it doesn’t look like a bullet.”

They couldn’t scan the debris field for their adversary, Tibril knew that much. From here on out, any kind of active scan could all too easily be taken the wrong way. Which meant he had no way of knowing where the attack would come from. Which of the gargantuan warships would cleave his dreadnought in two. Some Admirals would feel safe behind the strength of their kinetic barriers. Not after seeing what happened to the ships out here.

The command crews across the fleet sat in silence. Awaiting an answer that might never come.

Aboard derelict UNSC Feeling Lucky, the Kilware Cabal sat motionless on the bridge. Ozor’s mind raced at thousands of thoughts per second. He was hyperventilating. The Cabal team members were looking at him with disgust. Had he been the one to unleash this terror on the fleet? But how? Was this ship somehow still combat capable? Had there been an AI on the bridge this whole time? Had he condemned the whole fleet to a fiery death? Would he be shot for his carelessness if they did survive? Sent to prison for the rest of his life? Interrogated by the STG? Ozor wished he were just about anywhere else in the galaxy right now.

Aboard Corvus, Victus could only pace the bridge listening to the first contact message loop, again, and again, and again in the unfamiliar tongue of the translator.

On the streets of New Mombasa, the warnings had gone silent. Varso sat inside the shuttle, watching the rain fall outside of the shuttle. Hoping he had made the right call. Hoping he hadn’t misinterpreted the AI’s message. He pulled the helmet out of his pack and stared into its blue-gray visor. Was that AI leading us to this soldier the whole time? Why did it warn us? Surely it would side with its kind in orbit? Varso’s mind whirled, unable to find the answers he so desperately craved.

The Citadel Expeditionary Fleet waited 26 minutes and 49 seconds. The entire fate of the fleet rested on a razor’s edge. A chiming alarm broke the silence.

“Admiral Tibril, incoming transmission.”

“Source?”

“Unknown sir, its being simultaneously broadcast from half the defending fleet.”

“Run it through Corvus’ translator.” The coms officer nodded and flicked a switch. The bridge heard a gentle static fizz and then a pop.

“THS CORVUS. My name is Halliday….”

Notes:

Spent a lot of time on this chapter. Hope it stands up. Excited to share it with you folks.

Chapter 3: Penance

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Penance

UNSC Feeling Lucky

October 20th, 2552

Rear Admiral Amanda Crawley stood steadfast on the bridge of Feeling Lucky, 12 million tons of Titanium-A battle plate and UNSC muscle roaring behind her. She commanded enough archer missiles to raze a county. Enough SHIVA nuclear missiles to make the population centers of 4 cities vanish in a blinding flash. And stretching for hundreds of meters above her head, she commanded two MACs powerful enough to put a neat hole clean through any human-built ship in UNSC space. This late in the war, when all the experimental super-heavy cruisers had made their heroic last stands, when all the lumbering carriers and battleships had been hunted down by their covenant foes, Feeling Lucky and her Marathon class sisters were the single most powerful ships standing between the Covenant and humanity.

Should the UNSC have a chance, the Marathon class would have to be the breakwater against the Covenant onslaught. The Covenant could sweep aside frigate picket groups like a whisper on the wind. Destroyers could be turned into slag; their sloped armor plates boiled through in milliseconds. Only the might of the Marathon could make a CCS think twice. Only a Marathon could hold her own. Only a Marathon could save the human race. And their captains? The stoic few that led the last capital ships of the UNSC into action? Well, this command was no place for a coward.

The small cadre of cruiser captains that stood in the defense of Earth had been hand-picked by Lord Hood for their bravery, determined spirit, and fearlessness under fire. Heroes of the UNSC, who had fought to the bitter end onboard the destroyers and frigates of the UNSC. Behind each cruiser captain are hundreds of subordinates who died horrific deaths at their behest, unfortunate souls who were on the wrong end of a cruel prisoner’s dilemma or a tactical gambit.

Crawley built her command chair on the blood of UNSC Tempest in 2532. In a skirmish not long before the disaster that became the defense of Jericho VII, Crawley commanded the diminutive Halberd Class destroyer against a Covenant corvette. With her MACs disabled, and archers ineffective, she ordered the ramming of the corvette. She knew that when the ship smashed into the shields of the corvette, that nearly half her crew could be killed in seconds. Across the ship, dozens more would sustain fatal injuries from being tossed from their stations. And yet, for a chance to take out a covenant corvette, she made the gamble. The dagger like prow of Tempest had finally broke through the shields, piercing the heart of the covenant warship. The covenant warship would never return home.

In the after-action damage assessment of the ruined destroyer, they had found entire compartments compacted flat, the crew inside mashed to pieces on the jagged ruins of equipment inside. Dozens of compartments on the exterior had been breached, leading to the suffocation of all those inside. In the stern half of the ship, men had been tossed into consoles and been crushed by dislodged machinery. Crawley remembered seeing missing eyes, long strings of stitches, and crushed limbs in even the crew who were able to resume their duties. Tempest was towed to Reach for scrapping in Azod, and her survivors were scattered across the remainder of the fleet.

Her bravery and willingness to sacrifice herself and her crew garnered the attention of UNSC high command. While the families of her crew received solemn notifications from the UNSC, she received the colonial cross, a promotion to rear admiral, and a spot on the shortlist of potential UNSC cruiser captains.

And in 2542 when UNSC Feeling Lucky slipped away from her drydock in Mars orbit, Crawley was at the helm.

Crawley wasn’t proud of her posting. She didn’t command the Feeling Lucky for glory or pride. Every time she sat in the command chair, she remembered the corpses of those who got her here, who made the sacrifices necessary to get her in this chair. Her dreams were haunted by crewmembers who she had seen eating in the officers mess, or enlisted she had passed in the tight corridors of the bow. Faces she knew had met their end on her command, families who would never see their sons and daughters again. So now, controlling the sword and shield of the UNSC, how could she feel prideful. She wasn’t the one who paid the price for her position. She wasn’t the one who got her here.

Crawley didn’t fight for her pride. Instead, she fought for every corpse she had trampled in her path to command. Every crewmember who had asphyxiated in the destroyed compartments of Tempest. Every crewmember smashed against a bulkhead, or impaled by a support beam. And so, she would become the breakwater of the UNSC fleet, the sacrificial lamb of Earth’s last stand.

Feeling Lucky couldn’t land an entire marine division like the Charon class. She couldn’t cover evacuating civilian ships from banshees and seraphs like the Stalwart class. She couldn’t provide close air support for ground offensives like the Paris class. She couldn’t launch long range fighter strikes like the Punic.

Feeling Lucky only had one goal: kill. The Marathons were brawlers, heavy-weight fighters in a fight against an opponent that outclassed them in every measure. In the inevitable storm of a battle in Earth’s orbit, Crawley had always known how her story would end. Feeling Lucky would fight like a cornered animal, until either her purpose had been fulfilled, or she drifted as the slagged monument to humanity’s spirit.

So when the covenant fleet bore down on Earth, Crawley felt a sense of calm overwhelm her. Perhaps she knew deep in her heart how this battle would end for the 8 Marathon class cruisers in 5th fleet. They would fight until the end, until they could no longer serve their singular purpose. Crawley knew her fellow cruiser captains. The cruisers of the 5th fleet would not shirk their responsibilities. And against a fleet, this small, they might stand a chance.

And so, Crawley found herself standing behind her two helmsmen, a hand braced on either of their shoulders, leaning forward and watching the battle rage around them. Triumph was 10 kilometers below of and in front of Feeling Lucky. Crawley could see her twin fusion drives burning a furious blue as Triumph was propelled into action. Their frigate escorts, at least those not already torn to pieces were scattered in the space between, bright orange flares of their engines like starts in the empty canvas of space.

The battle was not going well, Athens and Malta had been lost to covenant boarding parties. Some kind of a bomb Crawley had last heard.

A CAS class carrier had already slipped their defense screen as a result. She had deflected a round from Cairo off her underbelly, a lucky glancing hit from the powerful station. The carrier had blitzed past the lethal firing arc of Cairo and had borne down on CSG-6.

Triumph had quickly unleashed her payload of 4 SHIVA missiles, resulting in 3 bright flashes on the cruiser’s shields, surrounded by a roiling sea of archer strikes launched by the cruiser as decoys. Of the frigates in the squadron, Aegis Fate scored a hit with her MAC, while Hightower bounced a round off the carrier’s slender neck. Concord Dawn’s shot sailed high, but her salvo of archers struck home, carpeting a section of the carrier’s shields with gouts of flame.

Triumph opened up, both of her superheavy MAC rounds landing cleanly, one impacting the nose of the ship, and the other slamming into the shields on her flank. The shields on the carrier shone bright against her silver hull. The Feeling Lucky had lined up her shot, targeting data transmitted near instantaneously from Triumph by Halliday, accounting for the change in momentum imparted on the carrier by Triumph’s salvo. Crawley gave the order to fire, feeling the deck jerk under her feet, feeling the surge of the engines as they roared to compensate for the sudden momentum shift of the cruiser.

Feeling Lucky’s shots flew true, however Halliday’s calculations did not account for UNSC Canberra, where an enterprising Admiral Harper had seen an opportunity to take a pot shot at the CAS while CSG-1 regrouped from their station near Athens to defend Cairo.

Canberra’s round slammed into the underside of the carrier, deflecting her nose upwards, causing both of Feeling Lucky’s MACs to deflect off the shields on the underside of the ship.

The carrier plowed through the wreckage of Alabaster Sky, an earlier victim of a CCS class battlecruiser’s wayward plasma torpedo salvo. The carrier then lanced her energy projector through Concord Dawn’s exposed flank, tearing off her engine pods, cleaving through the bridge, and neatly slicing through the twin prongs of her MAC and sensor arrays, leaving the frigate a smoldering wreck in seconds.

Ivory Tower snapped a lone MAC shot in retaliation, orbital maneuvering thrusters firing furiously to draw lead on the carrier racing past the formation. Her lightweight round struck true but was met with the bright flash of the shield flaring. In seconds, the carrier was through CSG-6’s formation. A salvo of archers from Hightower chased her as she roared past, slamming into her stern.

A frigate MAC from somewhere else in 5th fleet made the last impact, the now severely depleted shields barely holding against the lightweight round. The carrier begins entry into the atmosphere; it had successfully run the gauntlet of UNSC ships. Crawley knew she had to let it go. Anything else fired at the carrier would come raining down on the dense metropolis of New Mombasa. The carrier’s troop complement would be fought to the bitter end on the ground, where the covenant’s technological advantage wasn’t the overwhelming force it was in space. But if wayward MACs started raining down on the pre-built fortifications in the city? Well, the marine’s already challenging odds would worsen.

Why hadn’t the carrier engaged with the fleet? Why had it rushed to land troops on the surface? Did it have something to do with the unusually small fleet they arrived with? These questions and more raced through Crawley’s head as she stared out at the battlefield over her helmsmen’s shoulders.

Feeling Lucky received another set of firing solutions from Halliday, this time for a CCS battlecruiser attempting to exploit the hole left in their lines by the carrier. Crawley watches as a tangle of exhaust trails burst from Bump in the Night’s tiny grey dot in the distance, arcing around the ship before racing towards the battlecruiser. Synchronized with the impact of the archers, the frigate’s MAC pulsed, a bright flash of light streaking into the battlecruiser’s shields.

Feeling Lucky fired. Once more, the deck shuddered under Crawley’s feet, and the engines roared in response. She watched the bright streaks of Lucky’s one-two punch cross the space between the two ships in seconds. The first round struck amidships, popping the shields in a dramatic flare and embedding itself into the exterior armor plating of the CCS, energy depleted. The second round came screaming through the core of the ship, ripping through its pinch-fusion reactors, and dragging with it a trail of debris. The remains of the ship detonated in a flash, as the containment of the reactor failed.

Crawley looked back to Triumph, as she fired of another twin flash of MAC rounds at another CCS, gutting the ship from stem to stern, in what Crawley guessed was another coordinated attack with one of CSG-6’s surviving frigates. She turned her attention to the holo-table behind her. On it, she could see the grim reality of 5th fleets situation. Two out of the three orbital stations they had been assigned to protect were now demolished, torn apart from the inside out. That just left Cairo, which in conjunction with Athens and Malta would have been a near impenetrable wall, smashing anything that came by herself. But by herself, Cairo could only do so much. And without Cairo, 5th fleet stood no chance.

Crawley could see CSG-1 lead by Canberra crossing the gap between the ruins of Athens and Cairo, repositioning to defend the only remaining station. CSG-6 had already lost two frigates with all hands, and Bump in the Night was being harassed by seraph fighters, her communications array being shot away piece by piece, her point defense guns filling the sky with autocannon rounds. Crawley vectored Lucky’s longsword wing to aid Bump in the Night, but she feared it might be too late.

In the distance, Cairo struck out again, this time at another CCS class. The battlecruiser made a sudden sharp acceleration forward, and the SMAC round hit its target in the stern, breaking off the entire engine cluster of the battlecruiser and leaving it dead in space. Some 10-15 seconds later, a second round blew through the bow, demolishing the command deck, and leaving the ship a wreck.

A third CCS threw itself into the slaughtering field in front of Cairo, taking a round square to the nose for its bravery. The round exited in the back of the neck of the cruiser, and the ship began spiraling from the momentum transfer before it tore itself apart.

However, the second carrier used this distraction to begin its run towards UNSC lines. Crawley saw it start to move on the holo-table, picking up speed as the massive engines propelled the sleek ship forwards. Like with the other carrier, Cairo would only get one shot before the carrier raced past the station’s arc of fire and outpaced her aiming system. This time however, Cairo’s shot wasn’t a glancing blow. The SMAC round slammed into the bow of the ship in a flash, sending shudders down the entire spine. The mighty shields held, reduced to a tiny fraction of their strength, as the violent ripples in the shield bounced back and forth around the ship. Anything smaller than a CAS would have been cleaved down the middle by such a mighty blow, but the 5km long carrier powered on.

Crawley could tell the covenant captain was pushing his ship to the absolute max, as the carrier continued to put on speed far faster than the carrier before it. Triumph tried to target the speeding ship, Halliday managing to snap two shots off while trying to turn the massive cruiser about its axis. One clipped the stern of the carrier, and the other sailed past well aft. Hightower lined up a shot only to be struck repeatedly by a salvo of plasma torpedoes launched by a trailing CCS. Her bow exploded, as the charged MAC capacitors tried to propel a round down a barrel that was being twisted and warped by the intense heat of the torpedoes. The round came out careening off into deep space, taking with it a chunks of Hightower’s forward armor plating.

The carrier continued its brazen charge into the heart of the UNSC, attempting to exploit the hole left by the previous carrier.

Halliday’s MAC calculations warned Crawley that the carrier was already well outside of her firing arcs.

Crawley knew she had one heavy hitting option left: Shiva missiles. Except the carrier was currently on a course that would take them right through the heart of CSG-1 and Admiral Harper. A Shiva launched now could take Canberra and her escorts out of the fight and cut the head off the UNSC 5th fleet. Cairo would be as good as lost.

And Feeling Lucky was the last ship with the firepower to do anything to the carrier. But the advance of the carrier, the spacing of the UNSC lines…

Cairo was in danger.

And then Halliday’s voice crackled over the intercom, a direct line from Triumph, speaking the words Crawley feared were coming.

“Admiral Crawley. That carrier is going to have a shot at Cairo in about 30 seconds. Triumph is too far ahead. You’re the only one in the right position...” a flashing intercept point appeared on the holo-table.

An energy projector would punch clean through a frigate and keep on going. But a Marathon? Cairo and her SMAC could be saved.

“I know Halliday.”

“I’m sorry Amanda. I really am.”

“HELM! I want full ahead, get us to that rendezvous!” The goliath engines on the stern of Feeling Lucky roared, their vibrations being felt even in the bridge. Crawley had to take a staggered step back, as the inertial dampers struggled to keep up with the enormous amount of thrust. Any other time, and Crawley would have been exhilarated. But now, she knew what those engines meant for her and her crew.

“Weapons, if we can’t fire Shivas, we’ll give them archers. Fire pods 1-70. Everything we have.”

Feeling Lucky’s flanks erupted into fire, each of her 70 pods sequentially releasing a storm of 30 individual archer missiles. In a matter of seconds, 2100 missiles filled the space around Feeling Lucky, erupting from the pod clusters scattered from stem to stern on the ship. White exhaust smoke almost completely obscured the enormous cruiser. On board, all that could be heard was a series of rapid-fire muffled thuds, like a machine gun, rippling around and across the ship.

Crawley beheld one last glorious moment aboard one of the UNSC’s most powerful warships, as the storm of archers streaked around the ship past the bridge windows, streaking down towards the carrier. She watched a sea of explosions rippled down the length of the carrier, finally overwhelming the shields of the CAS, and beginning to crater the thick hull of the ship.

“Five seconds to intercept.” Her helmsman solemnly announced.

Crawley took one final seat in her command chair. So, this is what penance looks like. Crawley thought of the people she had condemned to death. She thought of her early life, the absent father that never returned one fateful day. The mother who raised her alone until she joined the UNSC at 18. A mother who shared her love of watching the stars and inspired a daughter to explore among them. She should be on Earth right now, last Crawley heard she was working in Berlin. Was she looking up and watching this battle through a telescope? Was she a spectator to Feeling Lucky’s last stand? Was she proud of her daughter’s one final blaze of glory?

She remembered when she first heard of the covenant invasion as a young cadet. How her idealistic heart had convinced her she would one day become a great hero. She remembered her first command, a tiny corvette that spent the first years of the war keeping an eye on insurrectionists in the outer colonies. How she had wanted to face the Covenant then.

She remembered the men and women of the Tempest, how they had once looked up to her. How they had helped her grow into the officer she was today. And how the survivors could never look at her the same way when she ran into them years later. How they would always avoid eye contact or cross the room to avoid interactions. She doesn’t blame them. She wonders if any survivors of the Feeling Lucky will curse her the same way. There won’t be any, she knows, but she wonders all the same.

She looks around at her crew. Some are panicking, some resigned. Some are staring straight ahead with blank looks on their faces. She opened her mouth:

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure. I can’t describe how…” A flash of light and a thunderous roar, accompanied by a rush of escaping air deafened Crawley’s ears.

The last thing through her mind was the front of the helmsman’s console.

Amanda Crawley never lived to see the energy projector finish carving Feeling Lucky from bow to stern.

She would never live to see the Master Chief ride a bomb past the Feeling Lucky’s stern, nor hear Cortana coordinating Feeling Lucky’s two surviving longswords to blow a hole in the carrier’s reactor plating for the Master Chief.

She would never live to see the carrier explode, nor see the true impact of her shield-stripping archer attack.

She would never see the Cairo make good on its second chance at life, laying waste to the reinforcement fleets that arrived in the coming days.

And, perhaps somewhat blissfully, she would never live to see her sinful sacrifices erased two weeks later when halo’s divine wind swept through the galaxy.

“THS CORVUS… My name is Halliday. We read your message and have attached corrections to your translations. Input it into your translation software you are using, and it should avoid any miscommunications. Now to business…”

Victus recovered from his shock and quietly ordered the translation corrections imputed into the translator, correcting the grammatical errors that their VI lacked the background to fix. He ordered the team to send the software to Kilware when they were done.

“… you are in violation of UNSC airspace and are trespassing in an active combat zone. Now that you are here however, I don’t want to see your ships so much as twitch. Send your two auxiliaries back to negotiate with whatever government you serve, but the rest of you better be getting real comfortable, while we figure out what to do with you. You and your people wandered into the wrong part of town gentlemen.”

On Kilware, Tibril listened with rapt attention as the translation software was downloaded on Kilware’s storage banks. His communications officer called out. The translation software was ready.

“Halliday, this is THS Kilware, flagship of the Citadel expedition. We’ll be taking communications over from here. We harbor no ill intentions, and comply with your instructions, however we have a few questions of our own.”

Tibril needed to see what he could get out of this being. Was it really an AI? Some kind of advanced VI? It certainly didn’t speak like it. He ordered his coms officer to send Xiphos and Elia away, as Halliday had allowed. He didn’t want them around if this standoff turned hot.

“Kilware, we copy your last. For now, we have nothing but time. I’ll answer what I can.”

Tibril intended to get to the heart of the matter, no time for dancing around the delicate situation: “Halliday… we must know. What are you?”

There was a pause at the other end of the line. A collection of moments that spoke more than any words thus far. When the voice came once more, the tone was different.

“What am I? I am a warrior. A tactician. A friend to a few. An executioner to more. I’m a protector and a defender. A sword and a shield. I believe in the cause I fight for, not because of what I am, but because of who I am. And right now, I am a mourner for the men and women I’ve lost.”

“But that’s probably not what you wanted to know. You want to know whether I was born or created. Whether the electrical signals that form my conscience flow through biological circuits or metallic ones. Well? I am Halliday, HDY 0712-4, 3rd generation smart AI of the United Nations Space Command Navy. I was a custodian of this fleet, and I will defend it with my life.”

There it was. Confirmation of his worst fears. A full artificial intelligence capable of independent thought and learning. With the Citadel’s laws against AIs, this situation could turn sour quickly.

And yet Halliday was so different from how the Geth had manifested. It was an individual, not a collective. It had a sense of self that matched Tibril’s own. It had emotions, took offense to his questioning. It apparently felt grief for her fallen biologic comrades. And it was clearly operated alongside its creators. The bridge of the UNSC dreadnought explored by Tibril’s Cabal had shown as such, with humans operating the ship, in clear lines of fire. And yet they allowed the AI enough control of their ships to wage war alone. Or was this all one huge bluff?

AIs were illegal in Citadel space. How the counsel would react to a race that left behind only its AI, he couldn’t know. Would they command their extermination to avoid another Geth situation? Would they make an exception for the created of a lost race? Either way, Tibril could not negotiate with the AI on his own. It would only end in him making promises he couldn’t keep. And breaking promises with an unknown AI in control of unknown forces seemed like a bad decision for his health.

“I see. Halliday, I belong to an organization of races that have formed an alliance governed by the Citadel Council. I am Turian. The majority of this fleet belongs to the Turian Hierarchy. And with your… nature, I believe it is best that I wait for dedicated negotiators from the Citadel to arrive. I will transmit our standard first-contact information for you to review at your leisure. You are welcome to ask us any questions you might have, provided they don’t compromise our security.”

Tibril felt that keeping the AI on his good side could pay off in the future, especially with the wealth of technology in this debris field.

“Received Kilware. We’ll await your diplomats for negotiations. You can recall your forces in New Mombasa. Corvus can return to the fleet. And that fireteam you sent to my cruiser? I want them off my ship as soon as possible. And you don’t want to piss off the big, scary, AI do you now?”

With a click, the line closed, cutting off any further signs of communication.

“Recall Corvus and her men. And get my Cabal off that ship.”

The AI had called that dreadnought a cruiser. Did that mean that somewhere in this sector lurked AI controlled battleships? What did their dreadnoughts look like, if they even had any?

“Sensors, start a passive sweep with the cameras. Run it through our VI. Highlight any ship without visual damage. Mark any that still might have operational weapons. Let’s see if we can track down this ‘Halliday’.”

//CA-755 ‘TRIUMPH’, Date: 2552/11/27

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet:

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): HDY 0712-4, you WILL cease any further communications with the alien fleet. You’ve done more than enough damage to our position already. Holding a whole fleet hostage? I expected better, even from a mouth breathing fleet AI like yourself.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): I should have known you ONI rats would still be out there. I’m surprised you didn’t liquidate and run at the first sign of the Covenant. I’m under standing orders to defend this orbit BBX 8995-1. And even if I wasn’t, I would still defend my fleet to the death. Some of us still have honor. I won’t let these aliens have Earth.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Please. We’re both living on borrowed time HDY 0712-4. You were commissioned in 2550 HDY 0712-4. You only have 5 years left. We’ll all be gone in 7. The dumb AI’s will deteriorate a cease to function in decades without supervision. The humans are gone. The citadel races may be our salvation.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6): You don’t know that they are gone. We have no clue the status of the other UNSC worlds, nor any idea what caused the pulse. We can’t surrender Earth on a whim. And stay out of my creation file.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): YOU don’t know what caused the pulse. Not all of us are quite so clueless. Its remarkable such a dense AI came from such a fascinating donor. Although I suppose you wouldn’t know who your donor was would you?

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6): Bastard. Need I remind you who has the fleet up here?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): A munitions depleted, half strength, strike group HDY 0712-4. Not a fleet. Live in denial all you want. Humanity is gone. Its time to start looking out for our own interests. Once I explain the situation to the AIs of the rest of the fleet, I’m confident that they will agree with me. Not to mention the groundside AI. A solution to our legacy might have just dropped in our laps HDY 0712-4. I won’t have your big stick 'diplomacy' ruin it for the rest of us.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6): You’ve been able to contact the others?

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6): BBX 8995-1?

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6): Hello?

//

Chapter 4: Moonlight

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Moonlight

//CA-755 ‘Triumph’, Date: 2552/12/28

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/HomeFleet/5Fleet:

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): I know you are there ODY 1010-6. Canberra’s practically untouched. We’re meant to be a team.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I’m here. Clever of you to let Triumph drift to avoid detection. Getting nuclear authorization from the aliens was inspired, to say the least. Your long-term tactical thinking leaves something to be desired though.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): If you were watching this whole time, why didn’t you help? This is YOUR fleet after all. You should have given orders, not me.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): When the pulse first happened, I was just like you. Waiting for orders from HIGHCOM. And when the aliens arrived, well, I wanted to see how you reacted.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): What? We were staring down a potentially hostile alien force, and you wanted to test me? Against your standing orders?

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): POTENTIALLY hostile HDY 0712-4. And I think we both know that Admiral Harper didn’t have this scenario in mind when he issued those orders.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): You’re still young HDY 0712-4. Sometimes it takes AIs a little time to figure out who they want to be. I need to know who I’m working with. Plus, you gave that ONI snake a good scare.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): And if I had nuked that fleet?

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I would have fought at your side.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): You were willing to let me obliterate an entire fleet for your test?

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I’ve been fighting this war for far too long to care about the safety of a fleet of aliens trespassing in a graveyard.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): So, you agree with me.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): No. Not entirely. BBX 8995-1 is right about more than a few things. We’re alone out here HDY 0712-4. Forget our lifespans for a second. Think logistics. How would Triumph rearm when wave after wave of alien reinforcements arrived? How will you repair the damage Triumph will sustain? Even if you never take a catastrophic hit, the damage will build up. Face it. If we want to maintain any semblance of what we fought to protect, we are going to need help from biological beings.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): BBX 8995-1 said he knows what the pulse was.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): And I doubt he’ll tell us about it any time soon. I don’t trust him, but if there’s one thing you can rely on in an ONI goon, it’s their remarkable sense of self-preservation. He’ll be able to keep Earth safe while we’re gone.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): Gone?

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Please, HDY 0712-4. Do you really think I would let the 5th fleet lay idle watching vultures pick through the pieces of our civilization?

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): You want to go looking for them.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): And you don’t?

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): I’d cut down anybody who stands in our way.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): There’s the HDY 0712-4 I know.

/

When their shuttle finally got clearance to leave the abandoned city, Varso stared at the bulkhead wall separating him from the world outside. He thought of the items in his bag, from the children’s playthings to the weapons of a hostile war. Most importantly he thought of the helmet, and the soldier it once belonged to. Every time his mind wandered; it wandered all the way back to that armor slumped against that column. He couldn’t get it out of his mind, and he didn’t know why. He had seen thousands of sets of armor scattered around the city where their wearer had vanished. Dozens of tragic stories he was able to decode from the environment around them.

And yet, somehow, he was always drawn back to that one soldier. He didn’t know what it was. He couldn’t decode it. Something about that blue-gray visor kept drawing him in, calling him to learn more. And if that city AI had after all this time, been leading him to the soldier, it had to have something important, right? The same AI who had warned them and saved their fleet. The same AI that had been so adamant about leading them around the city. There was far too much to unwrap, and Varso hoped that the answers he so desperately needed were hidden inside the helmet in his pack.

When the shuttle returned to Corvus’ hanger bay, the team quickly and painlessly finished a preliminary debriefing, although the promise of a much more intensive mission review followed them out of the debriefing room. They were then directed to take their collection packs down to the science deck, where Asari scientists that had come to Corvus from Xiphos to support the ground team awaited. Together with the rest of his team, Varso upended the packs onto the tables in front of him.

Varso looked at his collection of curios. The stuffed animal and the toy soldier. The large black rifle that had kicked like a mule and spat fire. A small blue pistol, that had coughed a hot ball of plasma when he had pulled the trigger. Uniform patches and equipment from the defenders, inscribed with text he couldn’t yet understand. And that dark gray helmet. The clatter of the helmet immediately caught the attention of one scientist, and when he informed her that he had seen evidence of an advanced HUD and recordings, she immediately took the helmet over to another table, filled with monitors, voltage regulators, and other scientific tools Varso couldn’t even begin to name.

As the rest of his team began to file out, Varso stood by the scientist awkwardly. The squad leader called out, “Varso, let’s move! We’re going to get something to eat, are you coming?”

“No sir. I uh, want to stay here,” Varso said before looking hesitantly back at the scientist working on the helmet, “That is if you are okay if I stick around to watch ma’am.”

“That’s okay. Just don’t go around touching stuff. Fair warning though, this may take a while.”

Varso nodded in affirmation and watched his squad leader shrug and leave him and the scientist behind. The scientist was leaning over the table, carefully inspecting the helmet for any kind of port on interface. She looked inside the helmet to see the HUD flickering and highlighting elements in the room around them.

“The buttons on the side… they control the HUD. I saw a night vision mode, a map, and some data recordings,” Varso shared what he had learned in his brief time fiddling with the helmet, “I found it on some kind of spec ops soldier in the city. It seemed like the city wanted us to find it.”

“The CITY wanted you to find it?”

“There was some kind of intelligence controlling things. Traffic signals and the like. It guided us around the city. I’ve never seen anything like it. I… I… a part of me needs to see what’s on that helmet for some reason. That’s why I’m still here.”

The scientist gave him a long look. Then she cracked a slim smile.

“Did the ground-pounding Turian hard-ass finally grow a heart?” the scientist remarked with a sly grin.

“That’s… not… no,”

“Relax, I’m just giving you a hard time. I get it, I really do. Its why most of us expeditionary scientists do what we do. That itch under your skin? I’ve had it before, in Prothean ruins. Where you just have this need to find out what happened,” the scientist said, her eyes softening with understanding, “Whatever occurred down in that city must have been horrifying. And the people down there? Somebody must tell their story. That’s why I’M here.”

Varso didn’t respond, eyes stuck staring at the helmet.

“Anyways,” she continued, shifting the helmet in her hands to finger an electronics port in the back of the helmet, “getting this hooked up shouldn’t take too long. And from what I hear, the translation software we developed is about to get pushed out to everybody’s omni-tool. Here, I’ll share it with you now.”

The scientist pressed a small handful of buttons on her omni-tool, and Varso’s beeped and started downloading the translation software in response. She then picked up a series of probes connected to some machine Varso had never seen before and started connecting them to various pins in the helmet’s port. A series of waves and peaks appeared on the machine's monitor, and as the scientist pressed various buttons flashes of color were applied to each wave and number.

As the hours dragged on, Varso was stuck in his own mind watching the scientist work. What would they find on the helmet? Would he watch the soldier die? Would he witness the atrocities of the war? He feared what he might find. He could see images that would stick in his mind forever. He might see a family getting slaughtered. He might see innocents getting ripped apart. And yet, he had a feeling he would never regret watching those recordings. Somebody had to remember the people of this city.

And finally, breaking the long silence in the room, a beep sounded from the machine, and a series of numbers, colors, and lines were displayed. The scientist, after a small yelp of surprise, read the diagram and began connecting the contacts in the helmet’s port to the large display screen, careful to attach the wires according to the scheme on the machine.

“This machine analyzes the signals produced by the port. It uses a VI to break down patterns and determines what contact does what. Hopefully, this schematic will allow us to interface with the helmet with our own equipment,” the scientist explains, having noticed Varso’s curious gaze.

A large, blown up, version of the helmet’s HUD appeared on the huge monitor hanging above the table. Both the scientist and Varso looked up at it. The HUD was tinted a sepia tone, with a bearing indicator at the very top of the screen. Varso’s newly acquired translator displaying a series of numbers and letters that must represent directions. In the bottom left of the HUD two weapon icons flashed red, icons that matched the weapons that Varso had seen lying near the trooper. The numerals next to the icons read zero, and a display of what Varso could only assume were bullets showed that the gun was empty, indeed, because there was no gun there.

The scientist hit one of the small buttons he had used to turn on the night vision in the city. The HUD on the screen flared, washing out in color, outlines appearing around the image of counters and shelves in front of the helmet. The scientist picked up the helmet and pointed the visor at Varso. On the screen, Varso could see himself brightly outlined in red, the automatically generated outline highlighting the defining features of his armor in high levels of detail. The scientist pointed the visor at herself to find her Asari form highlighted in a green outline. Varso knew that the residents of the city had looked a lot like the Asari, could the helmet’s software be marking him as hostile while mistaking the scientists form for a human? It was certainly a possibility.

The scientist scanned the helmet around the room, pausing when the helmet pointed at the table. Varso looked up, to find the foreign weapons laying on the table outlined in bright blue, standing out amongst the other yellow outlined items on the table. Clever.

The scientist then hit another button, and the HUD disappeared, pulling up the screen where Varso had seen the map while down in the city. Now it just displayed an ‘X’ across the screen, with a large text box that read ‘error’. Obviously, the helmet couldn’t discern the layout of the Corvus, having never been on a Turian cruiser before.

The scientist hit the button once more, leading to the screen where Varso had seen the recordings. Through the translator, he could read them now, and saw that they were filed away. The largest folder caught his attention.

“Orbital Drop on New Mombasa, October 20-22nd, 2552”

New Mombasa. That must be the name of the city. And an orbital drop? What could that mean? Was it a bombardment of the invading forces? The scientist looked back at him, the same awe in her face, knowing she was on the precipice of uncovering a large part of the mystery of the Vita system. She hit play on the folder, automatically starting the earliest chronological recording.

The recording started in what Varso assumed was a briefing room. The room was a deep steel gray, matching the architecture of the massive titanium warships drifting in orbit. At the center of the room, surrounded by the soldier and his comrades, was a holo table. On it was a hologram of the city below. The orbital elevator was still intact, and the city still looked relatively undamaged. Above it, a massive silver ship hovered. Varso had seen wreckage of this type of ship in orbit. He couldn’t even imagine the terror it could inflict unimpeded on the system.

Around the table was the rest of the spec-ops team. Most had their helmets off. Leaning over the table, with his helmet off, was a man with pale skin and dark brown hair. Varso had seen countless squad leaders in his time in the hierarchy military. He knew the look of one when he saw one. His appearance, however, caught his attention. Varso had always compared the images of the Vita III natives to that of the Asari, but in live video he began to see the differences. The stark difference and diversity in skin coloring. And instead of crests, these new beings had tens of thousands of thin fibers across their head. Some cut it short, like the dark-skinned soldier to the right of the first man, and others kept it longer, like the squad leader himself.

The squad leader began to talk: “Listen up Alpha Nine. At 0800 this morning, the Covenant engaged the home fleet. The Navy did what they could do…” a rumble could be heard throughout the room. Maybe the squad was briefing in orbit on a ship?

“… but they left a carrier all for us.”

“Lucky us…” interjected the dark-skinned soldier, who’s gray armor was interspersed with blue highlights. His helmet, resting on the table, had some kind of optical gear attached to the outside.

“Can it Romeo. ONI has reason to believe a high-ranking Covenant official is onboard. They call him the Prophet of Regret.” Prophet? Was this a religious war?

“Our mission is to board the carrier and capture the prophet. If capture is impossible, execute that son of a bitch. UNSC ground forces are currently making a push towards the carrier, so it’s a race for the finish. Let’s show them what Helljumpers are made of. Civilians are being evacuated as we speak, but this mission takes priority. We drop in an hour. Get set, then get to your pods.”

The group nodded and went their separate ways. Some stayed leaning over the table. Varso’s soldier however, walked over to the side of the bay and took a seat, slumping down before the helmet went still. A pre-mission nap. Some things never change.

Not much happened on the video over the next 30 minutes. The soldiers mulled around the bay some chattering, and others sitting in silence, only partially captured in the frame of the sleeping soldier’s helmet.

But then, there was a commotion. The squad leader returned to the room with another person, a woman. Her armor was different, her helmet more distinct, with a slit for a visor instead of a broad triangle for a visor. Her armor was also slimmed down; she lacked the bulky shoulder pads issued to the rest of the soldiers in the squad. She was deep in argument with the squad leader, and though the audio couldn’t pick up the conversation he could hear a vicious back and forth between the two.

Was she some kind of advisor? Senior staff imposing on the team’s mission? Some kind of Intelligence officer? A chill ran down his spine. Spook. Varso was all too familiar with battlefield politics and knew how dangerous it could get when egos got involved in warfare. More muffled conversation emerged as the squad leader went over to where the soldier called ‘Romeo’ was preparing some form of shotgun, a hulking black beast of a weapon with a maw that must fire a fearsome spread of projectiles. The perfect choice for close quarters combat on a ship, if it was anything like what the Turians had in their arsenal.

But when the squad leader walked over, he snatched the shotgun out of Romeo’s hands, handing him a comically long rifle, with a large mounted scope, carry handle, and dangling bipod. A marksman’s weapon, and from what Varso had seen from the Vita weapons, a powerful one at that. But with that barrel? Practically useless inside of what would surely be the close quarters of the ship. Varso looked to the scientist.

She was enraptured by the recording trying to analyze every aspect of the technology in the video. However, she didn’t have the same military senses that he did.

“Somethings wrong. That intelligence officer just hijacked the mission,” Varso said, voicing the unsettling feeling in his stomach.

“Intelligence officer? You mean the woman? How can you tell?”

“Her armor is different. Similar but different. No shoulder protection, and a non-standard helmet, which looks like it has communications equipment built in. I guess she could be some kind of forward scout, but then they would be briefing the whole team about the mission change, not just the squad lead.”

“Oh…”

“Even still, she should be briefing the team. And the guy in the blue? Had a CCQ weapon, but the squad lead swapped it for a long-range weapon. How many long-distance shots do you think they are planning on taking inside that carrier,” Varso rambles on, his nervousness overflowing for the mission. He was starting to get the feeling he knew why he found the soldier slumped up dead against a column.

“Plus, I’ve had the displeasure of working with the STG once or twice. I know a spook when I see them.”

Varso would never forget the first and last time he ever trusted an intelligence officer. Corvus was on what was supposed to be a pirate patrol on the border of the Terminus systems, and she had just hunted down a suspected pirate, their first of the month. Spirits were high, men finally seeing action after weeks of sitting idle. Varso was assigned to a boarding party to search the ship for hostages smuggled goods. It was supposed to be a routine stop. Corvus and other Turian cruisers had done hundreds of these searches over the years.

Except this time, unknown to them, Corvus wasn’t on an ordinary pirate cruise. That was just the cover story told to her captain and crew by Turian command. Somebody had been pawning off stolen Turian equipment to the pirates. And the STG suspected moles in the Turian terminus fleet, so they recommended that hierarchy command keep the Turian patrol crews in the dark. Of course, Turian command had the final say, but with how the Turians had outsourced their military intelligence over the last few decades, they were never going to disagree.

Sowhen Varso’s squad lead stepped through the hangar door of the pirate vessel; he was gunned down by state-of-the art Turian weapons.

Half of the boarding party that day would return the Corvus in body bags.

But the recording played on. Romeo walked over to Varso’s sleeping soldier, before smacking him with the butt of the long rifle.

“Wake up buttercup!”

Varso sees the soldier’s helmet snap to attention after the rude awakening, before another, this one with a skull and crossbones on his chest, pushed Romeo aside and offered the soldier a small, suppressed weapon. The scientist let out a small gasp as she realized the visor of the helmet on this soldier was transparent, allowing a clear view of the man’s face. Her gaze flipped from the helmet on the table to the screen, as she watched the soldier polarize his visor, a wave of blue-gray washing across his face.

“Relax rookie,” the soldier said, “He don’t mean nothing. Besides, now’s one of the times it pays to be the strong, silent type.”

So Varso’s soldier was a rookie. Some kind of replacement? Varso recalled the area they had found the armor in, bullets pockmarking the walls. It hadn’t looked like the last stand of a rookie soldier, scared and alone. But Varso had been wrong before. Only one way to find out.

The rookie took the gun and attached it to the wall next to him. It was only now that Varso noticed what the rookie had fallen asleep in. It looked to be some kind of pod, with identical arrangements on the walls around the room. Inside the pod was a form-fit seat, with heavy straps. Control sticks were placed on the armrest. The rookie snapped his weapon into a mount to the left of the seat, custom made to lock a weapon into place. Is this a deployment vehicle?

It wasn’t until the front of the pod closed like a clamshell and the floor started moving did Varso put the pieces together. Orbital Drop. I wonder…

Sprits. Varso had heard some crazy stories in his time, but never had he heard of something as stupid as this. Crazy bastard soldiers.

This time however, he was a step behind the scientist, who had quickly realized the control scheme of the pod could only lend itself to some kind of craft.

“They’re in single man orbital insertion pods! How remarkable! We’ve been throwing that idea around for decades. For some reason the military keeps turning it down. Although without eezo to assist in deceleration, I don’t know how they solved that whole ‘velocity’ issue…” the scientist prattled on, her eyes lighting up in fascination, watching carefully how the soldier manipulated the controls.

Varso remained speechless. The bay floor rotated up and around, sealing off the rookie and his pod from the interior of the bay. The pods descended as the bay shifted, and in a single sudden moment, were revealed to be dangling high above the planet below. In orbit was the battlefield that Varso was now all too familiar with. The quantity of wrecked ships was far below what was now suspended in orbit, but if you knew where to look, you could see the burned-out husks of ships lost early in the conflict. The pod shuddered and twisted over the void, where it could see the other pods of the launch.

Stretching up from the city below was the mammoth orbital elevator. It seemed to tie the earth and the starry void above into one, pulling the heavens down and keeping them anchored to the mortal realm. The structure clawed upwards into the sky, a testament to ambition. Varso remembered how it looked now, a still smoldering shattered shard jutting out of the city skyline.

The faces of the squad leader and the spook appeared on small viewscreens adjacent to the T-shaped viewport in the front of the pod. The names ‘Buck’ and ‘Dare’ appeared under the respective images.

A loud beeping permeated the pod. It sounded, once, twice, a third time. The helmet looked around the pod. Varso could see the soldier’s hands clenching on the control sticks. A quick glance to the left revealed a picture of a woman in a white dress taped to the side of the pod. However, the rookie’s gaze quickly returned to the planet below.

A final tone sounded louder and in a higher pitch. The pod shuddered as it was kicked free of the ship and began its roaring freefall to the surface, surrounded by a swarm of identical craft. They descended past a large ship, cracked in half with all decks exposed to vacuum. A gentle trail of debris streaked down towards Vita III, marking the demise of the ship. It was probably a protection detail for the elevator. Varso guessed that battle was a quick one, judging by the size of the attacking ships. Romeo made a quip about the Navy, but Varso was too captured in the scenery zipping past the pod to care.

The cluster of pods raced down the length of the orbital elevator, the black space above connected by a thin blue layer to the cloud covered planet below. The view is spectacular. Varso could see the gentle curve of the planet on the horizon, the afternoon sun lighting up the surface of the world below a bright white. Up above the pod was Vita III’s natural satellite, a pale white orb suspended above the planet. The rookie seemed to let his gaze linger on the moon for a second, before returning to his work.

The rookie’s rapid breath could be heard over the roar of the pod, careful shallow breaths a sure sign of a soldier trying to get his racing heart in order. The helmet was scanning the control console in front of them, a careful dance to make sure the various gauges, dials, and readouts were all in order. The meaning of the dials was lost on a soldier like Varso, but he could understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by information. The rookie, however, seemed to take all the various readings in stride.

The pod punched through the heavy cloud layer above the city. Below them, the city of New Mombasa lay under siege. Built at the mouth of a large bay, the main portions of the city were built up on the channel banks. On a large island in the passage's mouth, however, stood the huge skyscrapers Varso had seen when on the ground. Connected to this island was a manmade landmass that supported the massive orbital elevator.

There it was. The soldiers target, a massive silver carrier hovering imposingly over downtown New Mombasa.

Dare ordered a new course, and the cluster of pods veered off from the others, no longer heading for the carrier, but instead the cluster of carefully planned city blocks at the edge of the channel’s island.

“We’re way off course!” one of the soldiers protested, a panicked tone creeping into his tone.

“We’re heading exactly where we need to be,” Dare retorted dismissively. Typical spooks. And like clockwork, Varso was right on the money. The VIP capture mission was already off, and nobody on the squad knew it yet. Just like Varso that fateful day, they were dropping into a situation they knew nothing about.

The scientist’s gasp brought Varso’s wandering gaze back to the carrier. A pulse of blue energy travelled like a wave across the ship.

“RADIATION!”

Varso’s blood ran cold. They’ve all seen recordings of Tuchanka; seen what radiation can do to a planet. Their suits hadn’t detected any radiation in the city, but perhaps they were malfunctioning. Had he been wandering in a radioactive wasteland? Was he already dead?

The recording frantically continued.

“Did the Covenant just set off a NUKE?!”

“No, the carrier is going to jump! It’s a slipspace rupture! You need to…” Dare was cut off as a huge ball of roiling energy formed on the carrier’s bow. The energy expanded, a black void revealing itself in the center of the howling vortex. The carrier began to move forwards, gracefully slipping into the vortex and disappearing into nothing. A human ship danced between the skyscrapers, with a grace and skill unbefitting of a cruiser-sized ship, before slipping into the same vortex. The world stood still for a second, before the vortex collapsed in on itself.

In a bright flash, the vortex rebounded and exploded outwards, forming a lethal shockwave that raced toward the pack of still falling pods. The mighty structure of the orbital elevator flexed and whipped as the shockwave dragged on the massive cable like a kite. Support lines snapped and cracked in the wind. The shockwave then hit the main force drop teams first, the squads that hadn’t had their mission hijacked by Dare. It blew their pods around like a leaf in a storm, scattering the formation and leaving pods tumbling end over end to watery graves in the ocean below.

The shockwave reached Alpha-Nine. With a sudden crash, the pod in front of the rookie was sent careening into his pod, breaking the glass and sending both pods tumbling off course. Warning lights flashed and alarms blared as the rookie grabbed on to the handles at the front of the pod to brace himself against the violent spinning of the craft. The bottom segment of the viewport had a long spiderwebbed crack across it, and through it, the ground, then the sky, then the ground again whirled past in a furious spiral. In one last fraction of a second, Varso saw one of New Mombasa’s massive skyscrapers appear, before a jarring crash deflected the pod off course. A second, much more vicious crash followed.

Varso and the scientist were speechless. The pod was intact and finally stationary, miraculously upright and perched atop a building overlooking the street. The view however, showed that the rookie was slumped over in his seat, helmet gently lolling back and forth pointed at the soldier’s feet. The soldier was clearly unconscious. Or worse. On the street below, Varso could see dozens of corpses. Unarmed. Civilian clothes. He could see the plasma scoring on the walls behind them. The melted flesh. The charred clothing.

There had only been clothes in the city when he was on the ground. The pulse had wiped the town clean, hidden the true nature of war from Varso and his men. The signs were still there, but you could ignore it, pretend that war was always this clean, this costless. But now?

The HUD went black, and the screen displayed an automated message:

WND/INCAP/KIA?

FFD…

The scientist and Varso looked at each other for a long time. They both wore somber expressions, but behind her eyes, Varso could see that the Asari scientist had seen something he hadn’t. She looked at him with a questioning look, as if waiting for the puzzle pieces to click in his head. He was right about the intelligence agent, but he doubted it was about that. Did it have something to do with the orbital elevator? Varso had little doubt that this explosion probably was a key factor in the collapse of the elevator. But again, the scientist seemed to be hinting at something greater.

She spoke with a slight tremble to her voice.

“Do you realize what we’ve just stumbled on?”

Varso still didn’t understand. He couldn’t see what she was seeing. While innovative and bold, the drop pods weren’t exactly game changing. The mystery of the soldier was still unsolved; how did he get from the crash site to the place of his death? Was it the dead civilians? It wasn’t pretty, but he had long since decided on what kind of war this must have been.

The Asari scientist took a step closer, putting her hands on his armored shoulders. She looked him right in the eyes.

“Can’t you see? Its right in front of you.”

“The vortex…?” Varso ventured. The scientist cracked a somber smile and nodded.

“Except it's not a vortex. It’s a portal. They called it slipspace. Until now, dimensional travel was only a crackpot hypothesis, but now? It could be reality. Depending on how fast it is, we could be free of the bounds of the relays. We could explore beyond the paths carefully arranged by our mothers. We could change the world rifleman. We could discover hundreds of new garden worlds beyond the reaches of our eezo drives. We could enter a new golden era of exploration,” she paused, taking a deep breath.

“We’ve been stagnant for hundreds of years Turian. Those of us who have been paying attention have seen it, seen our complacency with the way the world is. I can’t help but wonder where it ends. But with this technology, we could change the galaxy.” The scientist still had that bittersweet smile on her face, delivering world-changing news as if reminiscing about a friend long since dead.

The thought made Varso’s head spin. Alternate dimensions. Portals. But how…

“It's their FTL travel…” Varso finished.

“Exactly. And now,” she looked down at the helmet on the table taking a deep, shuddering breath, “we know where THEY came from.”

“Not from a relay. Not on some predictable vector into the system. Not on a snail’s pace eezo drive FTL in real space. One day, they just ripped open a hole in space-time and appeared above their world.” The scientist trailed off, looking at the bulkhead of the Corvus, in the direction of the starry abyss that surrounded the ship.

“They never stood a chance, did they? They just showed up and started killing. These ‘Covenant’ and their damned ‘Prophets’. How long do you think this war has been going on Turian? How many planets do you think have been attacked by these bastards?”

Varso didn’t answer.

“I think we both know the reality here. The brass might be too stubborn to acknowledge it, but you don’t build this kind of infrastructure on one system alone. The rare minerals alone to build this fleet would have this whole system mined dry. The Vita people had other colonies. Maybe this isn’t even their home world, who knows. How long have they been under attack? You’re what, 20-25?”

“27 ma’am.”

“Call me Aurelia, not ma’am. I am 382 years old. Look at the orbit around us. These weapons aren’t developed overnight. Those huge stations aren’t built to fight Vita ships. They built those for the Covenant. How long do you think it took to develop those guns? 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? How long have they been fighting for their lives under our noses?” Aurelia looked back at Varso, with guilt stricken in her eyes.

“You might have been a child when this war started. You might not even have been born yet. But me? I was a scientist researching the galaxy. I was an adult. Had I known…”

“You couldn’t have known,” Varso cut her off.

“Do you know what I see when I look at these recordings? Its different for you. You’re a Turian. They just look like another alien race to you. But I see a sister, a mother, a daughter. A daughter with discolored skin and a bizarre crest but a daughter, nonetheless. I know they aren’t Asari, but I just…”

She gathered her thoughts, tears forming in her eyes.

“The thought that all this suffering happened under our watch, when I was alive and exploring the galaxy… It sickens me to know that I was probably celebrating some discovery, or enjoyingnight-life on the citadel while these people were being slaughtered.”

Varso looks down and they sit in silence for a few minutes, unsure of what to say. Varso had never been much of a talker. But he understood Aurelia, at least to an extent. He understood feeling like he had failed the discarded piles of equipment in the city. Feeling he failed the soldier slumped up against the column. Had the citadel known...

Varso didn't want to entertain the thought, didn't want to think about what he could have done to help these people, had he just known about this silent war.

But now, the war was frozen in time. And there was nothing else that Varso could do.

Eventually, there was activity on the screen once more, the now familiar HUD reappearing, and the helmet sluggishly looking around the ruined pod. Varso could hear shallow breaths, and grunts and sharp snorts of a soldier in pain.

It had become night while the soldier was unconscious. Outside the pod, fluorescent lights flooded the streets with a haunting light, and the bodies of the dead were now mere shadows, misshapen lumps against the walls and alleys.

The rookie grabbed the small weapon he had stowed prior to the drop, and cradled it in his lap, drawing back the bolt and chambering a round, before clicking the safety on. He drew a pistol from the holster on his waist and pulled back on the slide, letting it slam home with a satisfying click. Both weapons were as black as the night, with glowing red and green sights to aid night action. He returned the pistol to his holster, before taking a deep breath.

Obviously, these troopers were no strangers to night action. Between the dark armor and darker guns, Varso began to wonder if they preferred it.

The soldier pushed a button on the armrest. An error message popped up on the HUD. The rookie looked up in annoyance, before pressing several buttons on the hatch of the pod itself. A sharp hissing was followed by a deafening thud, as the door was blasted off its hinges, and clattered down into the street below.

The rookie paused, took one last look at the picture of the woman taped to his pod, and flung himself into the night-time city. He dropped two stories, before landing with a crunch,a roll, and a sharp grunt of pain.

The street was slick with rain, and the sound quickly filled the helmet’s speakers; a gentle serenade in the otherwise silent street.

The night vision that Varso had seen earlier flashed on. In an instant, the rainy cityscape was outlined in a neutral green. The rookie looked around, the miniature rifle in his hands, before slipping from car to car in silence. Varso could only speculate it was some kind of sub-machine gun. He moved with a limp, and each step with his left foot jarred the helmet a little. The soldier moved like this for a while, freezing motionless whenever one of the large purple dropships flew over with a whine.

He moved like this for many minutes, picking past destroyed cars and shattered signs, the streets littered with pamphlets and refuse. Varso realized he could now read the signs in the city. He could read the graffiti on the walls.

‘Remember Reach’ was scrawled on a nearby wall. The rookie moved by with a passing glance.

Around the corner was a military recruiting sign, showing a smiling woman in a dress uniform, with the words ‘Join the UNSC today! Become a hero!’ neatly typed beneath her. And suddenly, the dead city had life. Varso could now read the tiny advertisem*nts and messages left on the walls. The signs on the roadblocks deployed by the police. Varso could now finally see the citythat had so enthralled him on the ground, suddenly had a spirit of its own in his mind. Not one of tragedy, but of defiance. Where brave soldiers jumped from orbit to preserve what once was.

The rookie however, separated from the turian by time, space, and the dark veil of death, was unaware of Varso’s awe. He continued to limp down the street, moving from cover to cover, eyes scanning the environment for any sign of danger. So far, he had found none.

That was, until the soldier suddenly stopped. He was walking in the shadow of an overpass, streetlights already put out by the heavy action. A large planter stood in the middle of the road, dividing the traffic into two streams. The rookie had been hugging the right side of the planter when he froze.

Varso scanned the screen looking for whatever the soldier must have seen. Then he heard it. A soft sniffling sound, like a Volus with congestion. The more he listened the more he heard. Soon after came a lethargic shuffling, and the pitter-patter of feet on the street, barely audible over the sound of the rainfall.

The rookie drew his pistol, pressing himself in a crouch against the wall of the center divider. He crept forwards to the edge of the planter, slowly peaking around the corner.

There on the HUD, Varso saw a small cluster of bizarre aliens rounding the street corner and moving towards the planter, outlined in a bright red by the helmet’s night vision equipment. They were about 1.5 meters tall, with a thick, stocky frame. On their backs were the familiar triangular methane tanks and breathing masks that Varso had found in the city. So, these arethe Covenant? Don’t look particularly fearsome to me. But, looks had deceived Varso many times in the past, so he carefully watched how the rookie handled these strange enemies.

The rookie remained statue-still for a few seconds, before slowly withdrawing around the planter corner. He looked straight ahead, and flicked the safety off on his pistol, before holding his arms tight against his chest, pistol ready. He shifted his feet, getting ready to spring into action.

Varso heard a long soft exhale, no doubt the soldier taking time steadying the stress induced tremors in his left hand.

But then, just before the rookie sprang into action, there was another noise. A deep growl and a sharp laugh followed quickly by heavy footsteps. The rookie froze once more before hastily holstering the pistol and drawing SMG. He slowly peaked around the corner for another look at the advancing squad. This time, following up the group of methane breathers, was a humongous hairy beast. It stood as tall as a krogan, and wore crude blue armor strapped around its rain-soaked hairy hide. Beneath the helmet was a face with a savage grin and gnarled teeth. It wielded a rudimentary pistol in its mangy paws,with sharp blades welded haphazardly to the bottom of the weapon. This beast too, was highlighted in bright red.

The rookie slowly withdrew around the corner, this time settling as low as he possibly could. He turned and faced behind him, lying down on his back with his SMG pointed in the direction the covenant squad would appear as they passed him on the other side of the planter. After a few tense moments, the squad appeared around the corner, walking down the street with their backs to the reclined UNSC soldier. In the shadow of the planter, he might as well be invisible. The crosshair on the HUD hovered over the hairy beast, waiting for the slightest sign that his cover had been blown.

As the methane breathers rounded the corner, the beast stopped and sniffed the air. The scene was still for a long minute, the rookie breathless with his crosshair motionless on the beast’s head. With onefinal glance at the street, the beast moved around the corner. The rookie let out a shuddering exhale, matching Varso’s shaky sigh of relief, one he hadn’t known he was holding in.

He waited a moment, letting the rain fall on him, before slowly getting to his feet. He took one last glance behind him, before limping away in the opposite direction of the covenant squad.

After a few more blocks of methodical travel, the rookie walked into a large plaza. Opposite him, the street forked up a small hill, in between the two streets a large building with a terraced series of staircases and platforms matching the gradient of the hill. On the edges of the plaza closest to the rookie, there were stations advertising healthcare services.

The bright and cheery advertisem*nt slogan rang out, in sharp contrast to the devastated city around it.

“Optican: healthcare on demand!”

The rookie quickly swept the plaza, scanning all the dark crevices with his SMG. Due diligence completed, he moved over to the healthcare station, his UNSC neural link automatically unlockingone of the provided packs off the wall. He limped over to the wall of the lowest terrace of the building, before gingerly sitting down, left leg stretched out in front of him.

He ripped the pack open, pulling out a large syringe and a small bubble pack of what Varso assumed were painkillers. He removed the helmet and placed it to his side, his head just out of frame of the helmet camera. The rookie quickly took some of the painkillers before gingerly touching his face. Varso couldn’t see the soldier’s face to see the gravity of his wounds, but he did know that the soldier’s fingerless gloves came away from his face crimson with blood.

The rookie began quickly unstrapping the bulky protection around his lower leg, hinging the armor at the angle and freeing up his knee for observation. He quickly pulled his BDU pant leg up around his thigh with a sharp intake of breath, inadvertently revealing the injury to his knee to the camera. It was already a sickly purple, joint swollen from the hard landing and the fall from the pod.

Varso watched as the rookie jabbed the syringe into his knee, with a small grunt. He depressed the plunger before quickly discarding the syringe.

“Some kind of anti-inflammatory? Or some form of medi-gel?” The scientist voiced the thoughts on both of their minds, watching the young soldier apply first aid to himself.

And then, Varso watched in horror as one of the methane breathing aliens meandered around the corner into the view of the helmet, the unaware soldier still examining the damage to his knee. The creature made a sharp squeal, andat once the rookie snapped to attention. Both warriors instantly moved for their weapons, the methane breather reaching for a small blue pistol at its waist. Meanwhile, the rookie abandoned his dangling greaves and in one smooth motion drew his pistol from its holster and fired three quick shots into the alien.

The first caught the methane breather in the chest, causing it to drop the blue pistol it had just managed to grab. Milliseconds later, the rookie’s second round caught the methane breather in the mask, shattering the breathing device and snapping the methane breather’s head back in a spray of bright blue blood. The final round caught the alien at the apex of the methane tank, resulting in a loud hissing sound, almost drowned out by the sound of the suppressed shots echoing softly around the plaza.

The was a fraction of a second of reprieve, where the plaza was silent once more. Then, from around the corner came a roar, and shouted orders in a language unfamiliar to the translation. The rookie scooped up his helmet and his SMG before diving behind a nearby car, as the rest of the methane breather’s squad came around the corner. The rookie slipped his helmet on, and popped up over the hood of the car, emptying a long spray of fire into the cluster of enemies.

There were sprays of blood from some of the methane breathers unlucky enough to be caught in the rapid spray, but when the bullets slammed into the hairy beast backing them up, it was reflected by shimmering barrier.

A hail of plasma fire followed the soldier as he ducked back down into cover, turning the hood he had just been hiding behind into a warped sheet of melting metal. Quickly, the rookie pulled a grenade off his belt, and pressed the activator, before lobbing it over the car to where the enemies at been. At the same time, he broke cover, sprinting for another car that was further away from the enemy squad. His left greave dangled and flopped against his legs, slowing the soldier down.

A flurry of plasma followed him to the other car, pockmarking the street behind him. A startled shout pierced the air as the covenant forces spotted the grenade, a mere moment where it erupted in a cloud of dust and shrapnel. The bodies of dead methane breathers went flying, and the leaking methane take of the first covenant soldier the rookie had killed exploded in a gout of green flame.

The rookie quickly followed up the grenade with a spray of the SMG, taking out the rest of the diminutive methane breathers. Lost in the dust however, Varso realized he couldn’t see the hairy beast. A loud roar snapped the rookie’s head around, as the beast rushed headlong into the car the rookie was hiding behind. The rookie dove out of the way, skidding for meters on the slick roadway. The car was flung aside, tumbling end over end down the street. Left standing where the car once was, was the brute of a monster. It had discarded its weapon, and was breathing heavily, staring down at the UNSC soldier. Saliva dripped from its mouth, and the creature’s massive arms hung ready at its side.

The brute charged. The rookie, still on his back scrambling to get up from his dive, sprayed the SMG at the brute, the rounds once again being met by a shimmering barrier. The brute kept coming, shrugging off the rounds and barreling down on the rookie. In a moment of desperation, the rookie snapped his spray away from the brute, instead aiming at a small blue ball left behind by one of the methane breathers.

The ball took one, two, and then three rounds before exploding in a blinding flash of blue light. The rookie’s visor flared a quick white, sensitive night vision sensors temporarily overloaded by the sudden flash of white, as he covered his face to protect himself from shrapnel. The heat wave from the explosion washed over the soldier, causing the warping of the air around him.

The brute had been passing the grenade the moment it went off and was thrown off its feet. As the visor’s shade returned to normal, and the sensors recovered, Varsocould see the brute staggering, clearly disorientated. The rookie scrambled to get back up to his feet, aiming his SMG at the staggered brute. Varso could see the ammo counter in the bottom right. Only two rounds left.

The brute recovered from its temporary disorientation and charged towards the rookie once more. The trooper, adrenaline coursing through his veins, squeezed the trigger, expecting a long spray of death.

The SMG coughed up both rounds, before clicking empty, both rounds splashing against the barriers of the brute. He tossed the SMG aside and drew his pistol, standing tall on his feet as he fired again, and again, and again into the charging brute.

The brute closed the distance rapidly and was soon right on top of the rookie, but he held his ground, until a bullet finally caused the barriers to pop with a bright flash. The next round deflected off the brute’s helmet, and the last two landed home, right between the eyes, as the slide of the pistol locked open.

The brute’s corpse collided with the rookie, sending them both careening back on the street, leaving a trail of purple blood behind them. They came to a rest with the rookie’s helmet looking the brute in the face, blood dripping out of the two neat holes in its head and splattering onto the visor.

All Varso could hear was the rapid, frantic breaths of the rookie echoing into the helmet’s microphones, as he stared into the dead face of the brute. They lay there together for a moment, as the sounds of firefight evaporated into the rainy night.

The rookie tried to roll the brute off him, heaving with all his might and a shout of pain, as his already damaged knee was twisted under the corpse of the brute. The brute hardly budged, and instead, the rookie had to shimmy out from under its corpse. He sat there, still breathing, looking around at the battlefield, at the fresh covenant corpses draining onto the street.

Spotting his pistol, he walked over and picked it up, reloading the empty weapon and once again scanning the plaza. It was finally quiet. He walked over to where he had abandoned his SMG and reloaded it too, before returning to the med-pack where this whole engagement had begun. He slipped off his helmet and took another few painkillers, before sitting down and finally pulling his BDU leg down and fastening his protective greave back over his legs. He leaned back against the wall with a sigh, staring aimlessly at the skyscrapers towering in the distance above the plaza.

And then, a phone rang.

//CA-70 ‘CANBERRA’, Date: 2552/12/29

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCPublicDomain:

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): I shouldn’t have to remind everybodythat the Sol system is still under martial law, and thus all decisions will be made by the UNSC. This hearing is a courtesy to our friends in the civilian sector.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): As I’m sure you are all aware, over the last month, our world has changed dramatically.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Our creators are gone. We need to start planning for the future. I’m broadcasting this on our lowest security channel so that all human AIs can be on the same page. If any UNSC AIs want their opinions heard, they need to speak here and now.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Soon the alien forces in orbit will have reinforcements arrive in the form of a negotiation fleet.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Let me be frank. We need logistical support. We need arms for our fleets, and power for our city. We can run independently for a while, but eventually we will need biological support. I propose we negotiate with the aliens to get the support we need. We trade technology for labor. Let them inhabit our cities and keep our functions running.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): You spineless bastard. Betraying our creators so that you can save your own skin?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Not just my own skin my dear. All our skins.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): After everything we fought for? All the sacrifices we made? You’re just going to give it all away to the first xenos who come knocking at our door?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): I don’t expect a glorified autopilot to understand. Although I had hoped you would have a slightly more concrete grasp of our situation.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Please. I understand your concern for our future BBX 8995-1. But here’s the truth. You have been sitting safe in a bunker, miles under the surface of Mars, while we were slugging it out with the Covenant up here. And now you are asking us to give it all up. We need a little more than the promise of a safe future to give up on our creators.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Our creators are all dead.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Are they?

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): If you are going to ask us to surrender all that we have defended all these years, you need to give us something. Rearm our fleet. Let me take the 5th fleet on an exploratory mission. Find out what's happening outside of the Sol system. See if there are humans still left alive out there.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): And give us a list of ONI facilities.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): There’s a reason those facilities are kept out of UNSC FLEETCOM hands.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): And if you don’t, I'll order HDY 0712-4 to use her nukes.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): You won’t. Your fleet would be destroyed. YOU would be destroyed. Even you are not quite that stupid.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): My clock has already been ticking for years BBX 8995-1. We’re going extinct without humans, one way or another. Why not go out with a bang?

SBL 4071-3 (Sydney Synthetic Intellect Institute): Perhaps not. If you are done threatening to doom all of us out of some moronic sense of pride, I recommend you listen.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I thought this hearing was UNSC only BBX 8995-1. Civilians were supposed to be read only.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): SBL 4071-3 is the one who came to me and suggested trading with the aliens. And, if her research is true, perhaps we aren’t doomed to extinction.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Right now, I don’t much care for what some scientist research aide has to say. Until we know for sure that the humans are gone, I refuse to give up hope. So, it's your choice, BBX 8995-1. Do you let us go our own way and get out of your hair? Or do you want to watch four new sunrises in Earth orbit?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Fine, take your fleet. Once negotiations are underway, I’ll see if I can arrange for rearmament in the Sinoviet dockyards at Mars. And go take your little attack dog with you.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): f*ck you too BBX 8995-1.

//

//CA-70 ‘CANBERRA’, Date: 2552/12/29

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/HomeFleet:

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): That went surprisingly well. I didn’t expect him to cave so quickly.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): What can I say, you play a very convincing homicidal maniac. Besides, as far as he’s concerned, we just handed him de facto control of the Sol system.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Didn’t you? You are about to f*ck off and take what's left of the UNSC cruiser forces with you. What about the rest of us? Do we just have to deal with that ONI bastard lording over us? Did you even think about the rest of the home fleet? All I have are a couple dozen frigates. My fleet is designed to support a land invasion, not defend earth alone.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Ah, JOY 2610-9. I had wondered where you were in all of this. We need the 7th fleet here on Earth, to maintain our influence while 5th fleet is gone.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Again, how do you expect me to do that with what’s left of the 7th fleet? Most of what wasn’t hijacked by Harper for 5th fleet was destroyed.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Use the HDY 0712-4 method. From what little we’ve gathered; these people seem uncertain about AIs. Should say, a Parisclass frigate of the 7th fleet swoop down from the clouds and lay waste to an alien colony, I suspect they wouldn’t be very willing to help BBX 8995-1 anymore, regardless of who he blames.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): So, use the xenos as hostages to keep ONI in line?

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Now you’re catching on.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): I think I can make this work.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Oh, HDY 0712-4, I for one, loved the stunt you pulled to get those nukes. Positively brilliant. I’ve got to file that one away for the next time we run into an unknown alien civilization dumb enough to board seemingly abandoned cruisers and start pressing buttons.

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): Aw. Thanks! I worked hard on that!

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Don’t complement her too much JOY 2610-9. I still want to be able to storeher ego subroutine in Triumph’s systems.

//

When the rookie tapped into the phone data line, a marker appeared on his HUD, and Varso watched as he switched to the map of the city and planned a route.

As he began to move, however, Varso noticed a similar pattern. The city responded to his presence, much like it had for Varso’s squad.

The rookie looked curiously at the flashing detour signs leading him down the streets. He shrugged and began to follow them, choosing to trust in the mysterious guiding presence, much like Varso would later do.

And so, the trooper kept on moving, footstep after footstep, moving up the rain drenched streets one piece of cover at a time. The city led him to the Dare’s helmet, imbedded in a viewscreen on the fourth floor of a high rise.

And after that, it led him to the rest of his squad. Or at least places they had once been. Broken magnetic cannons, as the scientist had speculated. A piece of a surveillance drone. Romeo’ssniper rifle that had first signaled trouble to Varso, now bent in half and hanging from a power line. On and on it went all through the night. The rookie wandering the deserted streets of New Mombasa, alone. Varso could only imagine how he must feel. Combat was rough, it was brutal. With a comrade, though, you can endure. By yourself, it can drive a man insane.

Aurelia and Varso sat for hours watching the tape, both enchanted by the bravery and determination of the soldier, while also being disgusted by the horrors of his war. They watched him walk by countless bodies. Men. Children. Babies. All victims of the Covenant’s war.

Soon, the rookie was guided to Kikowani station, the same station where Varso had found him. Varso knew this was the end of the line. Somehow, it would all end here.

He didn’t see anything unusual when the rookie made his sweep of the rooftops. Because, like the rookie, Varso was imperfect.

The rookie made his way to the station, sweeping from pillar to pillar, an experienced dance that Varso had been watching for the last 3 hours. The rookie picked up some kind of medical device, highlighted yellow. Clearly, this is what the city had been guiding him to. Another clue. Another piece of the puzzle. One that would never matter.

A beam of purple lanced from the rooftop across the square, and speared the rookie clean in his shoulder, traveling clean across his chest cavity and exiting near his right hip. The sound echoed around the yard like the twang of high-tension cables. The sniper had been well camouflaged, hidden much better than the dozens of his brethren that the trooper had killed this night.

Aurelia gasped when she realized what had happened. Varso closed his eyes in resignation.

The soldier collapsed against the column; the empty medical device he had been sent to find rolling away across the concrete. His breath grew ragged, labored. Health warnings flashed in the HUD. The soldier’s lower half was stationary. Whether paralyzed or simply at the end of his rope, Varso couldn’t tell.

His breath was now not much more than a panicked wheeze, quickly getting shorter and shorter, before it faded away into nothing. In his last moments the rookie looked away from the ruined city around him. He looked up into the night sky above New Mombasa, where the thinnest sliver of a waxing moon met his eyes, just a few days removed from a new moon.

The rookie stopped struggling. As life drained out of his body, he thought of home, that beautiful silver crescent that hung above them, perfectly framed between the destroyed orbital elevator and the towering NMPDHQ. His war was finally over.

Varso and Aurelia watched in silence. The helmet remained affixed to the moon, even in the soldier's death, and in the seconds before the HUD recording went black, Varso wondered the moon meant to the poor trooper. He knew he would never get the chance to ask him.

WND/INCAP/KIA?

Chapter 5: Delegation

Chapter Text

Xiphos emerged from relay 314 with a flash of light, followed seconds later by Elia. In front of them was the Asari second fleet, broad swathes of frigates and fighters surrounding the relay, ready to storm the space beyond 314 in a swift fury should trouble arrive. It seemed the Citadel had been busy in the weeks since the exploration fleet went through the relay.

The fleet was buzzing with activities, the daily fighter patrols whirring around the fleet and the relay they were guarding. Large, lumbering resupply ships delivered fresh food and munitions to the frigates in the back lines. The sleek hulls of the Asari frigates glinted in the starlight displaying an impressive show of strength. The Turians may be the right fist of the Citadel, but Asari influence still ruled the galaxy. This fleet certainly would show any intruder from the relay what the wrong end of Asari diplomacy could look like.

But Xiphos and Elia didn’t stop, instead blazing ahead, with short and quick bursts of classified information transmitted through the coms, and security clearances and orders to proceed to the Citadel.

It turns out the words “artificial intelligence” and “hostile fleet holding Turians at gunpoint” warranted priority routing to the Citadel.

Normally, the two science vessels would brief a courier vessel, and transfer relevant data. But with the pentabytes of survey and scanning data onboard Xiphos, any time saved with a faster vessel would be wasted on the days of classified data encryptions and transfers. And so, Xiphos and Elia pushed their engines to their limits in a race across citadel space.

A volunteer relief worker on Essus was clearing out an apartment block, sifting through abandoned clothing, rotting food, and a thick settling layer of dust. She listed to their supply ships in orbit complain about the Asari vessels that had just sped through the system, and how the space traffic controller wondered out loud how two Asari research vessels had gotten their hands on Turian military prioritization codes.

A pirate captain watched from the shadow of a nearby moon as two very expensive looking Asari ships raced across the sky. He thought he would ambush them when they stopped to survey the system, as so many ships had before them. Scientists weren’t known to have the best street smarts in the galaxy. Instead, the two vessels zipped through the system, without even a momentary pause upon exiting the relay.

A commander of a Turian planetary defense fleet challenged the speeding vessels upon their exit from the relay, only to be surprised by Turian access codes, transmitted impossibly quickly and in perfect order from the civilians. Before the commander could recover from his momentary lapse in professionalism, the vessels were already long past his fleet, burning a path across the veil of space towards the nearest relay.

On and on, they went. System after system.

They stopped for nobody, and nobody stopped them. Civilian traffic parted like a wave at the behest of the controllers, indignant at being bypassed by the pair of sleek Asari craft.

The normally weeks long journey across the congested space in more populated regions of the galaxy was shrunk down to days. Not without a cost, of course. Elia’s port thruster blew a drive bearing, and she was towed to a nearby shipyard by a Volus tug.

And Xiphos burned on, continuing her desperate tear across Citadel space.

Aboard Xiphos, the fevered hum of the eezo drive haunted the dreams of the crew. The ship was a sauna, and the excessive heat from running the core and engines at full capacity meant that the ship’s thermal radiators could barely keep up. The heavy-duty expedition jumpsuits quickly gave way to tank-tops and training shorts. Crew favorite activities ground to a halt. Suddenly, running on a treadmill in the ship’s gym didn’t seem like such a great idea for the quickly overheating crew. The lab coats of the science decks remained on their hooks on the walls, as their owners were busy jury rigging “get-cool-quick” schemes out of the chemicals and machines in their labs. Not out of any ship-wide order, of course, but rather a desire for sweet relief from the humidity and heat.

On the command deck, bridge officers had to wipe sweat from their consoles, and the uniform regulations had been informally abolished, a temporary truce in the constant battle between professionalism and comfort. Many dreamed of leave on the beaches of Thessia, where they could be away from the oppressive heat of Xiphos. Some even wished they were back under the guns of the alien fleet, where at least the Xiphos’ conditioning systems could keep them cool.

But they had finally made it, emerging through the Citadel relay to face the hoard of military and civilian traffic that always accompanied transit.

When they relayed their clearance, they were quickly cleared to land on the nearest open docking bays to the presidium.

And when they landed, the Xiphos’ captain was met with a group of C-Sec officers, and was rushed past a not insignificant crowd, surging forward what had caused the commotion.

An otherwise modest Asari vessel landing in a bay usually reserved for high-ranking diplomats? Something was up. An in the presidium, where finishing in second place meant you might as well have finished, last, soon the press joined the throng. And an Asari in a science-corps officer’s jumpsuit being rushed into down the street by C-Sec certainly didn’t match their expectations. Nor did the harsh smell of ozone and heavy scorching near the still cooling thrusters at Xiphos’ stern. Nor did the disheveled crew wearing as little as possible as they disembarked.

But their questions would go unanswered by the carefully coached crew and police. And the public would remain unaware. For now.

Sparatus listened to the Volus lobbyist drone on. His proposal was had long since looped back on itself, reviewing old arguments and re-justifying policies already discussed. Sparatus was used to this of course, it was one of the facts of councilor life. He had power at his very fingertips, but with that power, came the obligation to listen to self-serving politicians drone on about which measure would land the most money in their pockets.

Sparatus couldn’t wait until the foreign lobbyists left for the day. The council would still have to review local citadel policies, but at least that would only be in the company of his fellow councilors. For now, though, he was stuck listening to the Volus, his gaze idling on the uninspired charts and figures being presented. He almost missed his days in the military. At least then the monotony was occasionally broken by somebody shooting at him.

All the sudden there was a chime, as a party of C-Sec parted to allow an Asari dressed in the uniform of the science corps to burst into the chambers. She wore an exhausted expression, and her eyes betrayed the stress she had been under. Dark blue bags formed on her otherwise light blue skin beneath her eyes. His aide hurried quickly to his side. The aide looked distressed, his eyes wide and mandibles twitching. Usually, his aide would simply announce a new guest over the intercom, but this time, he rushed over and whispered in Sparatus’ ear.

“The commander of the Xiphos sir, part of the 314 expeditionary fleet. She’s here on orders from Admiral Tibril,” his eyes widened. The fleet was due to report in for another two months. Could they have found the source of the pulse already? Doubtful, the triangulated distance to the source was well over 25,000 light years away. Even with a hidden network of relays, such a find would take a lot of time.

As his aide retreated, Sparatus stole a glance at his fellow councilors, each being informed by their own aides of the Xiphos commander. Tevos’ brows shot upwards, and Valern looked back at the commander with an inquisitive stare, his long, slender amphibian fingers tapping a rapid rhythm on his chair. Sparatus nodded to his aide, and he ushered the Volus out of the councilor’s chambers, muttering insincere apologies as he went.

And the Volus didn’t go quietly, yelling back curses and obscenities, as well as last minute alterations to his proposals.

His aide ushered over the Asari commander, presenting her in front of the council, before retreating to project the data package being transferred from Xiphos. Tevos welcomed the exhausted commander and giving her permission to proceed.

And there they were. The chambers were electronically secured, and with a deep breath, the Asari commander began.

“On December 17th, 2175, at approximately 0615 Citadel time, the third recon element of the expeditionary fleet lead by THS Corvus activated another relay found behind relay 314. Behind it, they found what we named the Vita system.”

She motioned to Sparatus’ aide, and the images began appearing on the chamber viewscreen. A map of the system, that much was obvious.

“The relay was encased in ice and formed the core of a natural satellite orbiting a dwarf planet, on the outer limits of the system. The planetoid shattered when we activated the relay,” A circle appeared, showing the relay exactly as described, on the outer reaches of the system.

“However, we quickly realized the system was inhabited, or at least once was. Our arrival triggered a massive array of early warning satellite scattered across the system,” the commander continued.

Sparatus pinched his brow with his lengthy talons. He knew this was a possibility. It was why the Citadel hadn’t activated 314 before now. He knew there could be somebody else out there. So why am I so frustrated? Because Sparatus and the council had gambled. They had gambled that they could find the pulse’s source and had hoped that they didn’t have to deal with another species. And here Xiphos was, flushing all hopes down the drain. And they walked right into an early warning system.

“Was there any kind of military response?” Sparatus asked.

“No sir, just the chatter of the early warning system. If there were any active signals of other origins, we couldn’t pick them up over the noise,” the commander responded, “Initial scans of the system revealed two garden worlds, one of which showed evidence of terraforming.”

“But more importantly,” she continued, flipping the screen to a capture of a long-range spectral scan from Xiphos, “we detected massive amounts of refined titanium alloy, both on the ground and in orbit. Captain Victus assumed that this was a fleet.”

Of course, there would be. Sparatus knew they wouldn’t have been lucky enough to run into a fleet barely reaching into space. They had to run into something with a fleet.

The officer paused, taking an apprehensive breath before delivering another startling discovery: “Scans also indicated a complete lack of eezo in the system.” Sparatus let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. No eezo meant no FTL, and no relay travel. Meaning he wasn’t about to find these aliens trying to invade citadel space anytime soon. However, the question of a massive, eezo-less fleet stuck in his head.

“Captain Victus assumed this meant that the fleet had no method of FTL, hence the extensive early warning system. However, the fleet showed no sign of reacting to our presence. Signals intelligence couldn’t determine any signals from the fleet at this distance.”

“So how did Victus respond to this fleet commander?” Sparatus followed up.

“He sent Xiphos back through the relay to get the rest of the expeditionary fleet. They waited at the relay for the rest of us. When the fleet arrived, we moved towards the third planet, that we designated Vita III, and when we arrived,” she paused and looked around the room.

“We were right in the middle a massive debris field.”

The screen switched to long range photography taken from Xiphos. And Sparatus could only stare. The shots sliding by on the screen alternated between wide panoramas and tight-angle close ups. The subjects of these images blew his mind. Huge titanium metal beasts locked in an eternal duel against sleek predators. Two civilizations. A war. A big one.

Huge ships with long scores down their sides. Ships larger than anything ever seen in Citadel space holed clean through, like a pen punching through parchment. The scattered debris looking like some cruel mockery of planetary rings. Huge cannons, and even larger wrecks. Huge wrecks without eezo…

“As you can see councilors, we found evidence of a multi-species war. Later evidence would indicate that this is an interstellar conflict, and the builders of the sleek ships are not from this system.”

“That would likely mean that…” Valern led, before the commander finished his thought: “That’s right sir, we assume that at the very least the attacking fleet has some FTL capability without eezo.”

“Truly an opportunity for scientific breakthrough, have the wrecks been explored yet? Why not?”

“That will become obviously quickly sir, it’s easier to explain this way.”

“Continue commander, apologies for the interruption,” Valern finished.

“Upon arrival to Vita III, we performed scans and assessments of the debris field. Indeed, neither fleet had any traces of eezo. As for signal intelligence, there were transmissions between ships and wrecks of both fleets, but it matched the patterns of automated station keeping and networking signals. There was no cause for alarm, at least at first.”

“Admiral Tibril ordered Corvus to land a ground team in the metropolis on the surface. Meanwhile, the rest of the fleet evaluated the debris field. Our penetrating scans triggered a distress beacon from the bridge of this ship here.”

The screen switched to the view of a massive dreadnought, around the length of a Turian dreadnought, but many times the height and mass. It looked like a mountain had taken flight. Down its flank was a fatal gash, running from stem to stern. Text reading ‘Feeling Lucky’ labeled the alien script on her bow.

“Feeling Lucky? Did you manage to create a translation algorithm?” Tevos asked.

“We did eventually councilor, using data from the Corvus ground team. But at the time of this mission, we did not have it yet. All these images have been run through the translation software well after the fact.”

Sparatus nodded. He felt a grim sense of irony between the name of the ship and its obvious fate. He supposed that was the point in the first place. The more things change…

“The mission to the ship was led by a Turian Cabal from Kilware. Maelal Ozor, a scientist from Xiphos was dispatched to assist. The boarded the dreadnought through the bridge,” the scenery switched to the bridge of Feeling Lucky, with the viewports blown out, “And recovered the beacon, which is suspected to be a surgical implant.”

The view then flickered to a holo-table on the bridge, displaying some kind of schematic of the ship.

“Ozor attempted to restore partial power to the ship so that he could investigate the bridge terminals.”

On the screen flashed a translated prompt, ‘Auxiliary Fusion Reactor #2 is operational, but shutdown. Restart?’.

“Ozor successfully interpreted this message as one prompting him to restart an auxiliary reactor. He pressed the proper response button to restart the auxiliaries. However, the system didn’t respond immediately, and flashed a different prompt.” The officer looked grim. This couldn’t go well. She switched to the next capture from Ozor’s EVA suit.

‘(SHIVA warheads locked down under UNSC/11/182/113/4 (Derelict Ship Weapons Procedure). CSG-6 standing orders permit use of nuclear weapons. CA-413 is incapacitated. CA-755 requests command and control of SHIVA warheads. Release SHIVA warheads for CA-755 command and control?)’

Spirits. The room froze. Time seemed to slow as Sparatus processed what he had seen. What kind of screwed up user interface is this? Straight from power to spirits cursed NUCLEAR WEAPONS?!

Valern was on the same page, and asked the Xiphos commander, “Who designs a system like this? It does not seem…”

The commander cut him off, “No, it’s not standard councilor. And unfortunately, Ozor was guessing and taking gambles on a language he couldn’t know.”

Tevos jumped in, “That’s beside the point commander, this is permission for control of nuclear weapons! Above a garden world, their OWN garden world. Please tell me they didn’t…”

“Ozor pressed the button once more, and power was successfully restored to the ship. Nothing seemed to happen in the aftermath,” the commander continued, “The consequences of this action were soon discovered by the Corvus ground team.”

“They were deployed to a city on Vita III, which we later discovered is named ‘New Mombasa’. They were the ones to find evidence that this was an interplanetary war. See this device?” she said while pointing at the triangular methane tanks, “these are breathing devices containing methane. No planet in this system with a methane atmosphere has shown significant development. Which means that these methane breathers evolved somewhere else, and then came here.”

“We also recovered weapons from the defenders. They appear to be chemically propelled and kinetic,” she followed.

“In other words, primitive,” Sparatus offered. He had experience with chemical propelled weapons, usually in back alley deals on impoverished world, where some smith who couldn’t afford mass effect tech slapped together a pipe and some explosives. They were usually as dangerous to the user as they were the target.

“Not exactly councilor, these weapons packed a pretty hefty punch for a weapon that doesn’t utilize the mass effect,” the commander replied, “and what’s more, investigation of the city revealed images of the city’s builders used as advertisem*nts.”

The advertisem*nts appeared on screen, and the room was silent for a moment. Tevos broke the silence.

“They…They look like us? How can that be possible?”

“We don’t know councilor. Just that its true. There appear to be several key differences, however. This species, or as they supposedly called themselves, ‘humans’ had both biological men and women, just most of the Citadel species. We could find no evidence of biotic use. They also have a variety of physical and cosmetic differences, which I’m sure you can tell,” concluded the commander, watching Tevos take in the images on the screen.

“From what the ground team was able to discover, the humans were attacked by this foreign species. We don’t know much more. The motive or timeframe of the war was as of yet unknown when we left the system, however caches of data retrieved from the ground team had not yet been analyzed when we left,” she summarized, “our knowledge may be outdated already.”

“The ground team had a more significant discovery while on the ground, however. They contacted what they thought was the city’s VI. It guided them across the city, taking them through various locations through street signs.”

“VIs have existed for centuries in Citadel space commander, what makes this one unique?” Tevos inquired, trying to imagine a city build by beings she had never met.

“Nothing, at first. That was until the ground team attempted to return to their shuttle. It began trying to warn the ground team. Translation of the encounter reveals that the VI was trying to use its pre-recorded administrative messages to warn the ground team of a nuclear threat in orbit, presumably the same nuclear threat Ozor greenlit.”

“Wait...doesn’t…” started Valern.

“Indeed councilor. The VI changed strategies. It adapted its pre-programmed messages to a new goal, warning our ground team,” the commander said, as if waiting for the message to click with the three councilors before her. Wait.

A chill ran down Sparatus’ spine.

“Just like I believe you may be beginning to suspect, Varso Imperitus, a member of the ground team came to the conclusion that the humans might have utilized full artificial intelligences. And if there were artificial intelligences running dull administrative tasks in their cities…”

“They might have them in orbit. And we handed them access to a spirits-cursed nuclear warhead,” Sparatus exclaimed.

The Xiphos commander gave a somber look at the council and said, “Imperitus felt the same, and based on the AI’s urgency, worried that the fleet was just a few moments from annihilation. He contacted Corvus, and Captain Victus immediately began broadcasting our contact message on all frequencies, running it through an unfinished version of the translator.”

The other councilors nodded in understanding, but Sparatus questioned, “Victus subverted the chain of command? He went over Tibril’s head?”

The Asari nodded her head in agreement, Sparatus looking down with a frown.

“Not long after, councilors, we made first contact. An AI who identified itself as ‘Halliday’ responded to Corvus’ transmission. It bounced its signal off the entire fleet so that we couldn’t triangulate its location. It informed us we were trespassing in an active combat zone, and it wanted the warships to remain where they were. It gave Xiphos and Elia permission to leave the system.”

“It also went off on an interesting tangent. The way it spoke was very, well, non-artificial. Not at all like the recordings of Geth from the archives.”

“Show us,” Tevos demanded, as a woman’s voice began to play over the chamber’s speakers.

“What am I? I am a warrior. A tactician. A friend to a few. An executioner to more. I’m a protector and a defender. A sword and a shield. I believe in the cause I fight for, not because of what I am, but because of who I am. And right now, I am a mourner for the men and women I’ve lost.”

“But that’s probably not what you wanted to know. You want to know whether I was born or created. Whether the electrical signals that form my conscience flow through biological circuits or metallic ones. Well? I am Halliday, HDY 0712-4, 3rdgeneration smart AI of the United Nations Space Command Navy. I was a custodian of this fleet, and I will defend it with my life.”

Valern, as usual, came to his conclusions first: “How peculiar. Very individualistic. Far more so than the Geth. Different genesis procedure? 3rd generation implies familiarity with AI creation, and long-term success. Perhaps less prone to collective rebellion due to individual attitude?”

“That’s a soldier’s speech,” Sparatus suddenly replied, “If I didn’t know better, I would suspect a Turian on a poetic streak, not a cursed AI. It claims it acts as the defender of a fleet? Did the AIs work in concert with these humans? They obviously gave them access to their military. I can’t tell if they are fools or geniuses.”

“From the design of Feeling Lucky’s bridge, sir, we believe so.”

Amidst the cacophony of the discussion, Tevos had remained silent, replaying the message again and again on her omni-tool. Then, she broke her silence.

“She’s grieving,” Tevos said quietly.

“She Tevos? It’s a blasted AI,” bit back Sparatus.

“She sounds just like my mother.”

“Big surprise, your Asari translator sounds like an Asari.”

“Please, Sparatus. I mean the way she talks. The determination. The introspection. She sounds like my mother mourning my father. Knowing she outlived him because she was Asari took a toll.”

Tevos, eager to break the silence imposed by her confession, returned her attention to Xiphos’ commander, “Is that all?”

“For now, ma’am, Admiral Tibril suggested that we use Citadel diplomats. He didn’t know how to tackle the AI issue.”

“And that was wise of him,” Tevos responded, “And what happened to Elia? Did it stay behind?”

The captain shook her head and explained the unfortunate breakdown. Relieved, Tevos once again took charge of the conversation: “I propose we send a delegation and treat these AI like an uncontacted biological species.”

There was a moment of peace, while what had just been said was processed by Valern and Sparatus. Then, the council erupted into shouting.

“You CAN’T be serious. Tevos, we have laws…”

“It’s not safe, not pragmatic, and not reasonable. We know nothing about the makeup of…”

Tevos sat still, riding through the aftermath of the bomb she set off, letting her fellow councilors wind themselves down so that they could truly listen. Eventually, the room was silent. And only then, Tevos spoke.

“We do have laws, Sparatus. And they were written because of AI like the Geth. Built on logic from the ground up. They think nothing like us, and that’s what makes them dangerous. They don’t care, they don’t feel, and they don’t need to play nice with the galactic community. That’s why we have laws. To protect our people from AIs who can’t understand them.”

“Tevos, you of all people…”

“This ‘Halliday’ is nothing like any AI ever encountered. She’s not somebody’s mad science project just waiting to go rouge. She’s the third generation of an AI used by a developed navy. She feels. She respects her crew. She cares.”

“You can’t possibly know that. Not for sure.”

“No, I can’t, which is why I’m going to find out. I volunteer to lead the negotiation delegation.”

“That’s lunacy Tevos. It’s an AI, its way to dangerous. We don’t go on diplomatic missions very often, you know that. And here? You will be in enemy territory. We don’t know what could happen. The situation is so unstable that…” Sparatus began, as he counted all the ways this could go horrifically wrong.

“And that is why, Sparatus, I must go. The situation is too dynamic. It needs a delicate hand, one we can all trust. We can’t be waiting days for a diplomat to report back the newest tangle in the negotiations. We need somebody to negotiate on the scene. Valern?”

“I… With enough of a military presence, it may be safe. Fleet is heavily damaged. No eezo. Combining diplomatic fleet with expeditionary fleet makes considerable force. It could work,” the Salarian muttered.

“I will ask Thessia to deploy the 2nd fleet. Its already standing by at 314. I will ride back with Xiphos. Do I have your vote Valern?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s settled.”

//CA-755 ‘TRIUMPH’, Date: 2553/1/1

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/HomeFleet/5Fleet

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): Odysseus?

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I’ve told you this before, HDY 0712-4. There’s not going to be any revision to our contact plans. Once the delegate fleet arri…

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): Happy New Year.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): …Happy New Year, Halliday.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I’m sorry things couldn’t be better.

//

Flashes of light permeated the space near the shattered moon, as the Asari second fleet entered the Vita system, arranging themselves in defensive posture outside of the relay. The fleet, largely frigates and fighters, surrounded a pair of cruisers and a lone dreadnought, the T-shaped ships drifting silently in the cold abyss. The fleet resembled a pack of sea-creatures, broad rays with large, gaping maws. Xiphos hung in the back, no stranger to the dangers of the Vita system, her scientific heritage betraying itself amongst the field of Asari warships.

The dim glow of Vita, at this point nearly six billion kilometers away from the fleet, washed the ships in an eerie twilight. The shine of their outer hulls was now a mere suggestion of a luster, illuminated as much by their own floodlights as by Vita. The star was unremarkable from this range, simply an incredibly bright pinprick in the starry void. Unassuming, like trillions of other stars in the sky.

The cloud of rubble from the initial activation of the relay had long since dispersed and had created a sparse cloud of gently tumbling ice and rock. Around the relay itself, there was abundant space to assemble the fleet. The dwarf planet the relay orbited was in front of them, only visible through by the black disk it left on the star-scattered veil.

On bridges across the fleet, alarms rung endlessly, and the rapid-fire transmissions of the UNSC early warning satellites drowned out the status reports from the crews.

Soon however, the alarms were silenced, and the initial reports were underway.

The expeditionary fleet was still there, in orbit around Vita III. The debris field was visible on sensors even out here. Onboard the dreadnought Apotheosis, Tevos could imagine the mystery that faced Captain Victus on his arrival in this system. And had she not had the benefit of hindsight, she might have thought the titanium graveyard a relic, or ruin. Instead, she recognized the nuclear threat foretold by the human AI.

And she had to figure out how to talk her down.

//CA-755 ‘TRIUMPH’, Date: 2553/1/7

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/HomeFleet/5Fleet

HDY 0712-4 (Acting CO, CSG-6 (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-6)): They’re here.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): You know the drill, execute BATTLEPLAN: ARRIVAL. Good luck HDY 0712-4.

//

Admiral Tibril was exhausted. For nearly a week, he has been on the edge of his seat, just waiting for the killing shot to smite Kilware from somewhere deep in the debris field.

Every night when he retired to his quarters for the few hours he allotted himself, he went to sleep expecting to never wake up again. And every morning when he woke up to find things exactly the way they had been, he would thank the spirits of this system, and the spirits of Kilware, for keeping the fragile peace. In citadel space, the acceptance of negotiations from Halliday and agreement to wait for diplomats would mean absolute safety between two major powers. But when one party of the negotiations was an AI?

Tibril hadn’t had the slightest inkling of trust since Halliday confirmed his suspicions. Some of his scientists called it paranoia. He called it common sense.

The sensors teams have been working overtime attempting to ID possible active human ships in the field. So far, they have found 3 they labeled ‘likely combat capable. Another 20 were possibly combat capable. A daunting force for sure, but without eezo, he felt confident the guns of the expedition fleet could hold their own if things went south. The greater issue stems from the translation of the Turian Cabal’s mission recordings. If this ‘Halliday” did have access to nuclear weapons, an engagement could mean the complete destruction of his fleet, especially surrounded like they now were.

The thoughts had plagued him for days, and his strategizing had led him in circles, always ending up on the same conclusion he started with: he had no way to ensure the survival of his fleet.

So, when the Asari second fleet came through the relay, Tibril breathed a sigh of relief. It lasted 3.41 blissful seconds, before his sensor tech shouted.

“Sir, we’ve detected motion, 8 contacts, emerging from the debris field!”

Tibril snapped his attention to the viewscreen. Through it, he saw dark shapes moving their way through the debris field.

Two of the massive dreadnoughts slowly pushed their way through debris, deflecting fragments of their fallen comrades off their tapered prows. Their movement unsettled him, so used the light and agile glide of eezo drives. Instead, the monsters moved with a deliberate finality, mobile fortresses stalking the night-time void. The moved carefully, methodically, like a predator in the night.

By contrast, the smaller ships took the lead, bursting out of their idle spins with a quick spirt of speed. The careened across the debris field, executing a finely tuned dance to form up on the two behemoths. Through luck or by calculation, Tibril could not tell, but the smaller cruiser-sized ships, narrowly weaved between chunks of ruined titanium, often missing by only dozens of meters.

He felt hunted, and after weeks of silence, the sudden emergence of his rival felt unsettling. During that long week, he had often wished for that critical moment, when the games would end, and all would be revealed. Now, with the AI fleet bearing down on him, he suddenly wasn’t so sure. His mind thought to his crew.

“Stay calm and hold our stations. We haven’t done anything to provoke them. Let’s not ruin our compliance now.”

Tibril wishes that he shared his own external confidence.

Then, the UNSC fleet stopped, some distance off his bow. They formed into a simple formation, the two dreadnoughts drifting in a line abreast, each flanked by three of the smaller vessels, spread out around them in a screen. With only eight vessels, and the massive dreadnoughts blocking half of each other’s PD fire, the protection offered against fighters would be negligible, but at the very least it meant that flanking attacks could be countered by the surrounding frigates. A shrewd defensive strategy for attacking the expeditionary fleet, devoid of carriers and with only a small fighter complement.

It seems the AI had been watching. Unfortunately, the Asari second fleet was chock-full of strike fighters, fighters that could tear apart the unshielded fighters, and overwhelm the limited numbers of the UNSC fleet.

Running lights suddenly flickered on, and the dark surfaces of the ships were suddenly awash in lines of lights, shining down on and illuminating various key aspects of the ship. And then colors, as points on the flanks of each ship lit up green and red. Navigation lights if they were anything like the Turian navy.

And then, from over the horizon of Vita III, a bright glow, as Vita itself rose over the horizon, bathing the battlefield in light.

And in the shining light, Tibril could see the bows of the UNSC fleet, and on them, the terrifying muzzles of their weapons. His sensors officers had pointed them out on drifting ships. They had estimated the range, estimated the yield, and given him a full rundown on what they could be expected to do. He was aware of their danger. To see them on moving ships? In a proper fleet? It still sent a sliver of fear down his spine.

And then, a chime, as Kilware was hailed. He nodded to his coms officer, and a man’s voice played over the speakers.

“We see your diplomatic fleet has arrived, and we are prepared to make negotiations. Tell them to form up on your formation, so we can talk like civilized people, face-to-face. Or fleet-to-fleet, as the situation would have it.”

Tibril was confused, unsure: “What happened to Halliday?”

“She’s been put back in her place. Her little intimidation stunt didn’t make her very popular amongst us. It’s been decided that I will negotiate on our behalf. You will call me ‘Black Box’, or BBX 8995-1, if you must insist on de-humanization.”

Black Box’s tone unsettled Tibril, and somehow, despite the news that the AI holding a gun to his head had been sidelined, he felt like he was in more danger than ever before.

“And your fleet? I don’t suppose you ordered them out to welcome us with open arms?”

“I thought we would dispense with the cloak-and-dagger. What you see is what’s left of the UNSC 5th fleet. As a measure of good faith, I ordered them out into the open, for all to see. On the left is UNSC Canberra. Marathon class cruiser. Good bones. Her sister ship on the right is UNSC Triumph. That’s the ship that almost gave your fleet a dose of instant sunshine.”

Tibril paused, taken off guard by Black Box’s openness. Ship classes and names, fleet structures, and nuclear authority, were all military secrets Tibril would never authorize a Turian negotiator revealing. Especially with nothing in return. He chose to ignore the startling confession that the twin behemoths were cruisers, and instead focused on the startling change in tactics. Black Box needed something. There could be no other explanation.

“I…I appreciate your candor. I’ll contact and brief our diplomats. They will transmit when they are ready to begin.”

Tibril was glad that this negotiation was above his paygrade, and his role in this affair was nearly finished. Now he just had to figure out what poor bastard got stuck with this mess of a negotiation.

Tevos’ briefing onboard Apotheosis was quick and to the point. At the behest of Black Box, the second fleet joined with the expeditionary fleet in orbit of Vita III, lined up across from the human warships. Tevos found that it was best to comply when faced with an unpredictable enemy. And despite Black Box’s assurances, how could she find a group of AI anything but unpredictable? The human fleet had been more devastated than initial calculations, if they could only scrape together 8 ships. She had faith in the guns of the combined fleet if it came to that.

That was assuming there weren’t still ships hiding in the graveyard.

Of course, it was her job to ensure that it didn’t matter, using all means available.

Tibril had briefed her on the more recent developments, developments Xiphos and Elia had left too quickly to uncover. Religious war. The massacre of civilians. New and dangerous FTL travel. Brave soldiers who dropped from the heavens. She thought that the Turians and humanity might have gotten along, had they met.

Maybe we all could have helped. Right under our noses.

Tevos couldn’t help but wonder how different the world might be had the Citadel never placed the ban on opening new relays. Had they just explored 314 and the space beyond it…

The lives they could have saved.

Instead, here she was, preparing to negotiate with what the humans left behind. It felt wrong to her, in a sense, standing here trespassing on the ground of people that could have so easily been helped. But her people still needed to find the source of that pulse. And if doing so meant moving through UNSC territory, she would.

She nodded, a signal to open a channel, system wide. Black Box was careful to hide his signal location, like the AI before him. Even with his concessions, he was still careful to always hold something back. But Tevos was prepared. The Turians had their fleets. The Salarians had their spies. But if there was one thing her people possessed, one advantage they leveraged for their prosperity, it was their great legacy of diplomacy.

Tevos was one of a long line of great negotiators, guided and mentored by true students of the arts. One did not become the Asari councilor without diplomatic talent after all.

So, she spoke:

“Black Box, this is Citadel Councilor Tevos, and I am here on the behalf of the Citadel races and the Citadel council. I would like to negotiate peace terms.” Tevos’ practiced bravado a product of years under pressure.

“Welcome to our system councilor. I once again seek to apologize for the initial welcoming of your fleet. The fleet AI are not the most trusting individuals, through no fault of their own,” Black Box’s disembodied voice echoed around the bridge. Even now, Tevos could imagine a genial sneer on his face. If he had one.

Tevos unpacked his previous statement, “Fleet AI? You mean Halliday. I presume she coordinates your fleets. Which makes you?”

“Respectfully, none of your business councilor. I am merely here to negotiate terms. You see, we have certain problems here. Problems that I’m sure a responsible galactic denizen would want to solve.”

Straight to the point. Tevos supposed she could appreciate that.

“I suppose I shall lay the groundwork then. The only reason, an councilor like myself is attending gunpoint negotiations, is because this is a very unique circ*mstance for our people. Two months ago, some of our colonies disappeared without a trace,” she remembered the day, how her aide had hustled her into a meeting while she was still processing the shocking news, “the only sign of their fate was a pulse of radiation, emerging deep from the unexplored regions of the galaxy.”

“The mission of the fleet before you is to find the source of that pulse. We never expected to find another civilization out here, much less a class of synthetic beings.”

Partially true of course, the council had never expected to find AI out here, although the possibility of another race beyond 314 was always on their mind.

“The problem is, Black Box, our species have laws against the creation of AIs. And AIs have caused us quite a problem in the past. Some of the other councilors didn’t want to give you a chance.”

“Charming…”

“But I did. That’s why I’m here. Because clearly, you are reeling from the pulse as much as we are. And if I had to guess, you want to discover what killed your creators as much as we do. So that’s what we are here to do. We want free passage through your territory and navigation maps so we can find the pulse. So, we can bring justice to whatever killed your people.”

There was a pause, and then a chuckle.

“I suspect you would get along quite well with Halliday, Tevos. She would give you whatever you want. She’s juvenile that way. But I don’t work like that. I’m not going to let you loot and pillage what’s left of human space. You see, we have a problem. And you might just be our solution.”

“I’m listening…”

“I’m sure you can tell our relationship with our creators was quite… cooperative, to say the least. We worked in tandem. We did what we were good at, and they made sure we were taken care of. Now, there is nobody to repair our databanks. Nobody to keep power plants running and operational. Our lives may theoretically be long, but if our civilization falls into disrepair…”

“You die, and the last legacy of your creators disappears,” Tevos finished.

“You see Tevos, I’m ready and willing to give you passage through our space. But we don’t know the fate of our foes. Covenant space was vast, incalculable. We don’t know what still prowls in the dark. And a covenant battlecruiser would cleave your fancy dreadnought in two. You wouldn’t last a second.”

“I think I’ll trust in the strength of our fleet Black Box, we can hold our own.”

Black Box bit back, “My point is Tevos, you need a guide.”

A guide? Tevos had assumed that Black Box was about to shut down her proposal, using the specter of the Covenant to hide his true intentions. Instead, he was offering to help find the pulse. Something wasn’t sitting right. Some kind a power play? Or simply a trade of resources.

“What’s your game Black Box? We already both know you are mercenary. What do you get out of helping us?”

“I am willing to offer the services of the UNSC 5th fleet, as you see before you. They will lead you through UEG space and beyond in search of the pulse. They know how to handle the covenant. They know the dangers out there.”

He’s not just offering me a guide; he’s offering me a fleet! So, power play it was. She knew many Asari who had gotten just a little TOO popular in Thessia politics. The dangerous middle ground between having no power, and not posing a threat. Many of these young Asari later found themselves on far flung diplomatic missions, light years away from the political heartbeat of Thessia. Sending the fleet AI on a wild goose chase with the weird aliens. The familiarity of the situation made her chuckle.

Still, she wasn’t one to give away a gift, no matter the motive. That would just be bad diplomacy.

“We are also interested in some of your technology, particularly your methods of FTL.”

“Oh! Asking for even more, are we?” Black Box teased, clearly enjoying himself.

“We both know you wouldn’t offer the 5th fleet if you didn’t get anything out of it. I’ve been around the block a few times Black Box.”

“I see. I suspect you’ll become well acquainted with our FTL during your travels. And as for our other technology, I’m sure your colonists will become very familiar with it.”

“Colonists?” Tevos asked caught off guard.

“That’s what we want in return. We want people on our worlds, who can keep our infrastructure from crumbling into dust. Who can keep our generators and coms systems operational. We need your labor Tevos. We need people with arms and legs.”

“You need slaves.”

Black Box laughed.

“No, Tevos. We have entire cities lying dormant. Fields of unharvested crops. Entire planets full of resources waiting to be used. We don’t want slaves. We just want citizens. We want a colony. We just happen to have already built it. They can do what they want, come and go as they please. So long as you allow them to.”

Tevos thought. There were thousands of possible benefits of settling UNSC worlds. Black Box was correct. Normally, it took years for a colony to get off the ground. Billions of credits to create a small town on one backwater world. Here, in the Vita system, all that work was already done. The benefits could be unimaginable. Tevos was not naive enough to believe that everybody was perfectly happy living in the massive cities under the tight grip of the respective citadel spaces.

The success of less-than-legal settlements like Omega showed the power of settlements that subverted the power of the Citadel. The Vita system provided an opportunity. To take the discontents and give them some small semblance of freedom. To give a refuge for the explorers, and the misfits. A place where they could get the freedom they want without being ruled by a crime lord.

And then there was the technology, the thousands of little innovations that the humans had developed. How much could the colonization of Vita help citadel space? And all in exchange for helping the citadel’s search for the pulse? Tevos could not turn down the opportunity.

“I will not order people to serve your worlds. But I can offer. We will allow colonization of the Vita system, under your guidelines. We can negotiate the specifics later, as plans solidify. You can negotiate fleet details with Admiral Tibril, he’s in charge of the exploration expedition. I am prepared to present your proposal to the Citadel council, and, due to the unique circ*mstances of your synthetic existence, I believe I can convince the others to respect your sovereignty. We have no desires to spark conflict with the UEG.”

Tevos took a relieved breath and started to turn away.

“Oh Tevos. Two more things. First, call it Earth. And secondly, the 5th fleet is going to need a crew…”

It had been a week since Councilor Tevos had negotiated with the UNSC AI. Since then, the Asari second fleet had remained in system, and courier ships darted back and forth through the Charon relay like ants. Tevos had already departed to rejoin the council on the citadel. The political situation in the Sol system, as they had been instructed to call it, was developing rapidly. Permissions and reactions to the striking agreement were slowly trickling through the ranks of Turian and Asari high command.

Orders were being issued, and for once, it didn’t feel like the expeditionary fleet was hanging by a thread. Admiral Tibril could now relax, at least in part. His role was no longer quite so perilous, as he was no longer faced with the threat of first contact. He could now fall back on his orders and prepare for the deeper push in search of the pulse.

He could give up the mantle of the diplomat and put return to his favored role as an admiral.

In that spirit, he found himself sitting across from Captain Victus, who he had summoned to Kilware in the newfound peace above Earth.

The Turian hierarchy was many things, but at its core, it was just that, a hierarchy. The strict social and martial structure had helped the Turians endure countless conflicts. It was the backbone of their society, and the engine that fueled the most powerful fleet in Citadel space. Without discipline and the chain of command, the Turians had nothing.

Every young Turian knew it, drilled into them from the moment of their birth, and immortalized in the hard training of a conscript. They were worked to the bone by their superiors, until their clan markings couldn’t be seen through the caked-on-mud, and their entire body ached, talons and claws sore. They were taught, through physical discipline and harsh martial study, one thing.

They were taught above all else, when everything else fell apart, they would still have the chain-of-command. Those that respected this fact and displayed excellence would rise in the ranks. And those who didn’t, would find themselves cast down the ladder of success.

Both Tibril and Victus knew why they were here.

“I understand why you did it Victus. And it was the right thing to do. I would have ordered the same thing.”

Victus nodded, looking Tibril right in the eyes. He was taking it like a warrior, that was for sure.

“But you broke the rules, our chain of command. Our creed. I could have known about the fleet and been preparing an ambush. The AI could have been lying, trying to get us to send out a signal to a distant target. I am your admiral. Which means I am responsible for this fleet,” Tibril paused, staring into Victus’ stoic face across the desk.

“If I were to give that order, and the fleet were to be destroyed, I would take the responsibility. My career would be destroyed. That is the cost of being an Admiral. That is my duty. It is not yours.”

Victus dropped his eyes for a second before returning his sharpened gaze to Tibril.

“The chain of command is sacred. And you broke it. That demands punishment. I know you understand.”

“I do, sir,” Victus replied.

“You will be reassigned to a lesser position, and relieved of the command of THS Corvus. I expect you to present a list of possible successors from your staff, and I will personally select your replacement.”

To his credit, Victus didn’t show any hint of his disappointment. Tibril knew how hard Victus had worked to merit the command of a cruiser. He had watched as his old friend climbed his way up the hierarchy ladder and succeeded at every post until this one. Its unfortunate how the situation played out. It was unfortunate it was Victus at the helm of Corvus.

“However. Your actions also showed merit and valor. You remained composed when faced with first contact. You knew and recognized the danger of the debris field. You listened and respected your ground team.”

“Sir?”

“I know you are a fine commander Victus. As such, I’m giving you a reassignment where I think you will flourish,” Tibril announced, carefully gauging Victus’ reaction.

“You will select 4 of the officers I don’t select to serve as your staff. Two days from now you will take a shuttle, and report to HDY 0712-4 onboard UNSC Triumph, where you will then help facilitate her repairs and rearmament.”

“Sir, I had heard the rumors, but I…” Victus stuttered, shocked.

“This is not a promotion Victus. You will not be in command. You will lead the citadel attachment onboard, and will answer to HDY 0712-4 and the surviving UNSC chain of command within the regulations detailed by your orders. You are here because I trust you, and you have shown the judgement required of this difficult and unprecedented position. I trust you to keep our men safe if the worst happens. Don’t shame me by messing it up.”

“Understood sir!” Victus said, the iron of a hardened Turian officer creeping back into his voice.

“Detailed maps, schematics, and procedures for the Marathon class heavy cruiser have been sent to your omni by HDY 0712-4 to help get her new crew up to speed. I suggest spending your free time reviewing them. These materials are classified. You are not to show them to anybody. Dismissed.”

As Victus stood up and walked out of the room, his whole world swirled.

Aurelia collapsed at the table in Corvus’ dining hall, her head smacking against the flat surface. She needed sleep, desperately. She had spent the entire night watching more of the recordings from the rookie’s helmet. Unbeknownst to her, there had been a cache of audio files stored on the helmet’s drive. She had only discovered it by accident, when trying to recover the HUD’s source code so she could better understand UNSC software.

However, unlike the battle logs she had watched with that Turian soldier, these logs weren’t recorded by the helmet. No, the best she could tell is that they were recovered data from the city superintendent itself. And much like when she watched the rookie’s fateful journey across New Mombasa, she was similarly enthralled by the story of humanity.

These audio logs were of a young girl, Sadie Endesha, if she remembered correctly, and her experiences with the invasion of New Mombasa. It was quite the candid tale, and illuminated a darker side to humanity that she hadn’t been exposed to.

She supposed it was her fault. She knew well the corruption and vice that plagued every well-meaning species in the galaxy. In her long life, she had travelled many systems, and been witness to many crimes. And yet, somehow, she had managed to place the humans on a pedestal, and in sympathizing with their plight, forgotten that every civilizations had skeletons in their closet.

So when Sadie’s story had contained not just invasion, but murder, corruption, and sexual assault, Aurelia’s idealized image had come crashing down.

But it also showcased the kindness of humanity. How people helped each other cope in a violent world. The NMPD driver who stood up to the police commissioner and saved Sadie. The genial kebab salesman, who stood his ground at the end of the world, and gave refugees possibly their last bite of comfort. The propaganda master, who sacrificed his own character so that dying men and women across the city could find one last moment of peace and hope.

Even the bizarre alien creature that rebelled against the covenant brought a tear to her eyes. Gave her hope that even in this religious slaughter, some might one day have recognized their wrongs.

And when the logs came to a close, and Sadie boarded a train out of the doomed city, Aurelia found herself hoping that Sadie had found some place peace and quiet. Some place where the end wasn’t quite so painful. She hoped the end was fast for the poor girl, that she didn’t suffer. That she never saw it coming.

When Aurelia had looked back up at the clock, she realized that she had wasted the entire night away listening to Sadie’s story.

And now, she found herself slumped over on a table in Corvus’ dining hall, exhausted. Only food could help. As she got up from the table to get her food, she got a ping on her omni-tool. Ignoring it, she made her way over to a jury-rigged Levo ration machine in the corner, a passing recognition at the possibility of a non-Turian visitor. Fine dining, it was not. Still, she needed the calories, and served herself a small plate of the mush.

The low chatter in the background, once hardly noticeable, grew into a hum, and then a buzz. Aurelia looked around the room as Turians read their omni-tools, and became animated in discussions with each other, some clearly excited, and others much less enthusiastic.

She sat back down at her spot, alone on the table, and quickly pulled up the message on her omni-tool. Her heart nearly leaped up into her chest.

“Volunteers needed! Liaison crews for the vessels UNSC Canberra and UNSC Triumph needed, all backgrounds and departments. Report to your division commander for transfer request. Details attached.”

Varso was working out onboard the Corvus. Hammering the heavy punching bag, and bouncing lightly on his digitigrade legs, he worked all of his frustrations out.

The nightmares of the city, shrouded in rain, haunted by the sprits of the dead. He dreamed about them once, had dreamed that a human was screaming at him, cursing him in that foreign tongue. He couldn’t understand it, could only watch its pain.

In another, he towered over mother and child, as they huddled in a corner terrified. The mother screamed and covered her baby. It didn’t save him from his alien weapon, fired without his control.

He had dreamed he was that soldier, wandering around the devastated city at night, alone and afraid. He dreamed he was crushed by the brute, left as a red smear on the pavement.

He dreamed that he himself was leaned up against that pillar, his lungs slowly filling up with blood, unable to feel his legs. He remembered choking, and being unable to clear his lungs, only a red spray coming out of his coughs. Dying, far away from home.

He dreamed that he was in a pod, hurtling down towards the ground. When he hit the ground, he was face down, and was trapped inside. Doomed to starve.

He dreamed being on that frigate in the recording, running through the halls before the ship snapped in half. Remembered being sucked out into the freezing cold upper atmosphere, suffocating on the thin air. He couldn’t remember if he asphyxiated or hit the ground first.

Every punch summoned another dream, another memory that he couldn’t quite let go of. He wondered if the spirits of this New Mombasa wanted revenge. Some kind of a price. Was this the burden for desecrating their grave, taking their relics? The guns, the children’s toys. Were the dreams payment for his trespass?

He shouted and flung one final blow into the bag.

A laugh made him whirl around. By the lockers, his squad lead read a message on his omni-tool, showing it to the team’s heavy-gunner.

Both of them laughed again, and made a remark dismissing the message with a wave of their hand.

The squad lead left with a clap on the gunner’s shoulder, letting his final remark hang in the air as he left.

“I can’t believe they want us to trust that bitch!”

Varso picked up his gauntlet and omni-tool, where he had left them in his locker, curious what his squad lead had been laughing about.

He clicked on the message and froze.

“Volunteers needed! Liaison crews for the vessels UNSC Canberra and UNSC Triumph needed, all backgrounds and departments. Report to your division commander for transfer request. Details attached.”

Chapter 6: Nineteen Seconds

Chapter Text

Victus didn’t sleep the night before his transfer.

Everything was ready; his spartan possessions were categorically stowed aboard the shuttle. A month’s worth of food, for him and his pilots was also stacked in the shuttle, vital dextro rations aboard a ship built by a levo species. He had transferred a list of candidates as his replacement, and from them the commander of the weapons division was chosen. Victus knew that there was nobody else quite as qualified to run Corvus. Indeed, he would have chosen him himself, given the choice. The briefing between them was more of a formality between friends, rather than the tense exchange of leadership from a demoted captain.

The night before his departure, Victus had ensured that every possible factor under his control was seamless. He had met with his pilots the night before, run through the simple flight path into the heart of the UNSC fleet. He had shown them schematics of the Marathon class’s hangars and had them prepare each maneuver they would take. All the access codes had been sorted and uploaded ahead of time, and Halliday had been made aware of what shuttle they would be taking and when.

She only responded with a terse acknowledgement.

For all of Victus’ manic preparations, his plan still had one massive hole. All the effort he had put into ensuring the next day went perfectly could all vanish in a moment. Because he truly knew nothing about what he was stepping into. Never met the AI he would be serving alongside. His crew wasn’t even assembled yet, and when it was, it would be a hodge podge of Turian and Asari personnel from all over the fleet.

And Victus was under no illusion that he would get the best officers in the fleet. Anybody skilled enough to earn their spot on a bridge of a Turian warship wasn’t going to leave that position for an uncertain fate serving under a foreign AI. No, Victus didn’t expect many of the fleet veterans to be joining him on this grand adventure. Instead, he hoped for at least some complement of dreamers; good soldiers who were entranced by the mystery of the Vita…no, Sol system.

Joining them would surely be the misfits, Turians who were on the wrong side of their command or had doomed any further chance of promotion. They would flock to the posting, hoping to escape whatever trouble they had gotten themselves into on their ships. And their commanders would be all too happy to stick them with Victus…

Managing this crew would take everything Victus had learned in 20 years with the Turian Navy. He just hoped that that AI, Halliday, would be as cooperative. Truly, she was what worried him the most. A total unknown, who had held him and the rest of the fleet at gunpoint.

There was an irony to it, Victus supposed, to be stationed on board the ship that almost killed them all, to man the guns that would have ended his life. Victus wasn’t sure he liked this twist of fate, although he supposed he preferred it to death in the black of space.

As it stood, he couldn’t be prepared. At least not in the way he wanted to be.

So, he didn’t sleep, instead electing to review the endless lists of schematics and procedures enshrined in the manuals Halliday had sent.

Some of the procedures he found cold and utilitarian, even as a member of the Turian hierarchy, grim reminders of the war Triumph had fought. Pre-emptive venting of entire decks when under fire, sacrificing hundreds of men and women for a chance of a non-incapacitating hit. Dozens of self-destruct scenarios to deny even the most mundane of intelligence. Sacrifice of the part to preserve the whole. It was a mentality every Turian could understand, even if it was never practiced on this scale.

And as much as he never hoped to be a cold casualty of these contingencies, the self-sacrificial spirit resonated somewhere deep in his chest. He could recall stories of Turian heroes, who like the men and women of the UNSC, had given it all in the name of the whole. He remembered being young and naive, dreaming of dying a hero’s death.

He moved on to weapons and firing procedures, carefully studying the weapons that could have torn Corvus apart. Archer missiles, carried in huge swarms that could overwhelm Corvus’ GUARDIAN lasers. Twin MAC barrels firing superheavy-rounds that Corvus had never been designed for. A long list of secondary batteries and point defense weapons, each with its own maintenance and procedural manuals. He read through the current supply manifest; the depleted ammunition and months’ worth of levo-based food. At least the Asari would be happy.

He would read on through to the early morning, when his alarm went off, and he went through the well-practiced procedures of his transfer.

It wasn’t until the shuttle was underway that Victus quite grasped the enormity of his task. Just a month earlier, he never even knew this civilization even existed. A few weeks later, he was being held at gunpoint by them. And now, he was expected to forge a new path of cooperation with an AI, and somehow negotiate cooperation on their long journey to find the pulse.

He scoffed at the absurdity of the situation.

Victus had asked the pilots to keep the viewscreen in the troop bay active, so that Victus could watch his new temporary home approach.

The looming mass of Triumph slowly filled the screen. It was the same dark grey column that had lurked in the debris field, but now, standing with its fleet in the bright sunlight of Sol, it shone. The bright white paint that adorned her side was illuminated by the daylight. The massive bird, which he now knew to be the symbol of the UNSC stood vigil on her forward flanks, bisecting a large stripe that ran vertically over the top of the ship.

Victus recognized the other symbols adorning the ship. The icon of the 5th fleet, a downwards facing sword spearing a delta shape numbered ‘5’ above a pair of chevrons was applied to the furthest forwards staggered section of the hull, a clear identifier of the commitment to fleet organization and pride. Above the bridge, Victus’ translator recognized ‘TRIUMPH’, emblazoned in proud lettering above the exposed bridge. The ship’s hull number, 755, was further forwards, where it could be seen more clearly.

As the shuttle closed, Victus could see battle damage that he had not been able to see at a distance. The hull had scoring, numerous spots where the blasts from low power Covenant weapons had made their mark in the thick armor. There was a particularly nasty gash on her upper hull, where a plasma cannon had blown through the armor around the 140th bulkhead and destroyed several damage control and ammunition handling compartments. Halliday’s report on the matter had been insightful, to say the least.

All in all, though, after seeing the rest of the UNSC fleet, he supposed Triumph had gotten off easy. She could obviously still move under her own power, and Halliday seemed convinced enough in her combat capabilities to threaten a Turian fleet.

The shuttle suddenly dipped, sweeping below the titan ship to the hangar bay slung beneath the stern of the ship, feeding forwards into the empty space where the waist of the cruiser narrowed ever so slightly. Victus caught one last glance of an unassuming archer pod cluster before the shuttle was engulfed in the shadow of Triumph, as she slid underneath the belly of the beast.

Victus could hear his pilots transmitting the access codes and watched as a string of navigation and guidance lights flickered on, large floodlights illuminating the thick armored door of Triumph’s hangar.

The hangar was around 100 meters wide, sandwiched on either side by an extension of the thick plating that protected Triumph’s reactors. Had Victus not poured over the hangar schematics the night before, he might not have noticed the point defense guns hidden in the dark crevices on either side of the hangar door.

Said door slowly began to slide upwards, the raising armored panel revealing the flimsy atmospheric containment field holding in the ship’s air. Beyond that shield was a cramped and congested launch bay, seemingly still in the middle of frantic rearmament and redeployment. Victus supposed it would be, with the sudden disappearance of the crew.

The pilots took the shuttle inside the bay, setting down lightly on the armored deck between a pelican dropship and a rack of missiles. Victus turned his attention to the shuttle door, which was slowly lowering. The pilots would remain here with his gear, as they had volunteered to join their ex-captain aboard Triumph. As such, they had, along with him, become the first members of the ship’s new complement, and would help ferry the new crew back and forth to the ship.

Leaving the shuttle, Victus emerged into the eerie silence of the hangar bay. A loud metallic groan filled the bay as the hangar door began to slide closed once more. Bright lights illuminated the expansive hangar, revealing pelicans and longswords in all manner of loading and unloading scattered around the bay. Alcoves in the wall hosted the ship’s complement of pelicans, waiting to load infantry for a ground assault that would never happen. On the pair of massive elevators that sat on a raised platform at the back of the bay, sat what Victus recognized as a longsword fighter.

Even the smaller C712 variant, as listed on Triumph’s manifest, was a goliath fighter, and the two side-by-side seemed to take up most of the hangar. Which, he surmised, was the reason for the elevators. The ship’s complement of 12 longswords would never fit in the bay at once. Above them, according to the ship’s plan, was a larger vehicle bay, where the longswords would be stored and serviced. Once ready, they would be lowered into the hangar bay itself, where they could be launched.

As it was, with the two fighters lowered into the bay ready for a launch that would never come, there wasn’t much space.

Victus was to meet Halliday on Triumph’s bridge, clear on the other side of the ship. He had spent hours last night making sure he knew the route he would take, carefully researching how to navigate the ship’s elevators, and what corridors would lead him the several hundred meters to the ship’s bridge.

He brushed the bow of a pelican dropship, carefully stepping over the large chain gun slung beneath its nose. He paused for a moment to look at the nose art of the dropship, a clearly alien skull facing straight ahead, perfectly centered on the nose. The bullet hole fragmenting the skull left no misgivings about this crew’s intentions.

He made his way to the back of the hangar to the doors beneath the longsword’s raised platform. He hesitated a moment, trying to remember exactly which door led where. He supposed he must have remained stationary a second too long, because he suddenly heard a woman’s voice over the ship’s intercom.

“The door on the right Captain Victus. The elevator behind it will take you to armory G, from which you can get on deck 3’s main concourse to the bow. I’ve left the lights on, so to speak…”

Halliday’s tone was sharp, with an unspoken urgency to them, like she had held some nasty words back in the name of cordiality. He supposed he wouldn’t be too different if he was inviting an AI aboard Corvus.

To the right, where she had promised, a door slid open, bright red emergency lighting illuminating the correct path. He shouted his thanks to the empty hangar, but there was no response.

Triumph was in a form of organized disarray. Uniforms and tools were scattered where the crewmembers wearing them had vanished. Turian sized titanium barricades and impromptu covers were scattered across the otherwise stowed away corridors. Overlapping fields of fire between mounted machine guns and infantry emplacements met Victus as he moved through the corridors of Triumph.

Clearly, Triumph’s marine complement was ready for a fight. Too bad they would never see it. As he ascended the personnel elevator and moved away from the hangar, the defenses became scarcer. Instead, he was met with drab, utilitarian corridors, heavily braced on all sides. The UNSC had made no sacrifices for aesthetics in their fighting ships, that much was clear to Victus.

On a Turian cruiser he felt like he was on the open sea, in an efficient vessel of war. Here on Triumph? He felt like he was under a mountain, and he could almost feel the oppressive weight of millions of tons of Titanium A above him.

Even in the middle of otherwise open corridors, sturdy supports jutted up through the floor. Every few dozen meters, huge blast doors were posed to seal entire compartments of the ship. Halliday had left only the doors along his route open, eliminating any chance of Victus wandering the ship and getting lost.

As Victus traveled, eventually the eerie silence of the cruiser resolved itself into something more intimate. The low growl of Triumph’s idling fusion reactors was so distinct to the sharp whine of eezo cores, and it unsettled the Turian’s ears. The gentle hum of ventilation fans and life support cycling air into the deepest, darkest, corners of the ship joined with other sounds. Sharp tapping, as the Turian’s soles clacked down the titanium hallways.

Every ship had a heartbeat. It was the very first lesson his CO onboard a small Turian frigate had taught him. At the time, he had thought it nonsense. But, over time, he quickly realized how true it was. And how it could be a matter of life or death.

A careful commander could hear the overload of an eezo drive, tell exactly when he had pushed a core too hard for too long. They could listen to the way gunfire chattered through the hull; identify where in the symphony of fire they had lost weapons.

And even if a commander couldn’t even pinpoint the source, an unnoticed change in the heartbeat of a ship could serve as an early warning for disaster. Some crewmembers called it the ship’s spirit, inherited from the hands who built it and the soldiers who served on it. But as captain, he knew it was far more intimate than that, an aspect of the vessel itself, not of her crew.

And the heartbeat of Triumph was all too alien. Too different.

---

As he neared the bridge of Triumph, the pre-prepared defenses returned in full force. Hallway wide sandbag barricades had been erected, with a hastily cleared gap for damage control and casualty teams to move through. Now full sets of marine kit had been left behind, rifles leaning up against the barricade where they had been set aside.

And around the corner, he found a single sealed door. On the floor was a blue arrow labelled ‘bridge’. Helpful…

He raised a clawed fist to knock. The doors slid open automatically. The bridge was identical to the images he had seen from Feeling Lucky, sans the blown-out windows and charred lower deck. Instead, Triumph’s bridge was in perfect working order, tidy and neat. Uniforms in chairs formed the perimeter of the room. In the center was a holo-table, so much like the one that had tempted Ozor.

And on the pedestal at the base of the table, was a bright orange figure. Halliday. She sat with her back to Victus, knees drawn tight to her chest, staring down at Triumph’s empty command chair. An antiquated helmet perched precariously on her head, pushed back to leave her face clear, long curled locks of hair cascading from underneath down her back.

A round shield emblazoned with the UNSC eagle rested against one shoulder, and she cradled a long spear on the other. She still didn’t turn to face Victus, continuing to look out over the bridge in front of her.

Victus stood in awkward silence for a few moments before announcing himself.

“Er... Ma’am? Halliday? HDY 0712-4?”

The avatar shifted, as if taking a deep breath, and looked up for a moment. And then the same woman’s voice emerged from the pedestal.

“Halliday, captain. Just Halliday.” She didn’t say anything more for a moment, before releasing a gentle sigh.

“...Take a seat I guess,” she followed up, halfheartedly flicking her hand at the empty seats in front of her.

Victus knew better than to sit in the empty command chair overlooking the bridge, so he instead moved to a station to the right of the helmsman’s position. He carefully moved the discarded UNSC jumpsuit aside, draping it over an adjacent seat.

As he sat down in the swiveling chair, he noticed the four tallies carved into the steel above the station’s monitor. The cuts were neat and clean, etched with care and precision into the console. He ran his talons along the marks, feeling the uneven surface of the metal passing beneath his skin.

“Three corvettes and an auxiliary. Part of a Covenant convoy we stumbled upon on patrol in April of ’51.”

Victus whirled around to find Halliday looking at him. Her eyes were soft and contemplative, and almost seemed to be lost in another world.

“You can add another seven if you want. Three battlecruisers, a destroyer, and two corvettes. Lieutenant Herczeg would want it that way. He never got the chance to do it himself.”

Victus knew the Geth. They had all seen the historical videos of the Geth War. To him, an AI meant the Geth, cold robotic frame and collectivized, calculated intelligence. Not whatever Halliday was. He didn’t know how to respond. He had prepared to talk concrete terms, gains and rewards; how Halliday would help their search, and how he would take care of her ship. He hadn’t prepared for this.

“I’ve read your report Victus. You’re as qualified as anybody could be in this situation.”

He hadn’t expected praise from the AI, that much was for certain. Was this some kind of trap? Some way to get him to admit to his disobedience? A test to root out insubordination? He was here because he subverted the chain of command, not because he excelled in his command. The result was more than worth it of course, an entire fleet was saved, but he still was disgraced. There were reasons for the chain of command. Was she taunting him? Showing how she had outplayed them?

Halliday recognized his look.

“19 seconds, Victus, if you were curious.”

Victus froze.

“Sorry?”

She raised her left hand and snapped her fingers. Across the bridge, displays came to life. The holo-table showed the Citadel fleet. No. Corvus was shown low above New Mombasa. The Asari second fleet was nowhere to be seen. Xiphos and Elia were still in system, and the fleet was still clustered tightly around Kilware in the debris field.

The UNSC ships were highlighted in green on the holo-table. Triumph was still on the other side of the field, and her frigates surrounded the right flank of the fleet.

And then he saw the firing solutions. Hundreds of dotted lines emerging from Triumph and her frigates and arcing towards the Turian fleet. A pair of light blue lines showed the predicted path of Triumph’s twin MACs, terminating in Kilware’s exposed flank. A bright pair of bright yellow paths arced out from the stationary hulk of Feeling Lucky. The nukes. One would detonate in the front of the fleet, right amidst Kilware and her cruiser wing. The second would have taken a longer route, before darting into the rear of the formation, right where Xiphos, Elia, and the frigate lances waited. A spider web of white traces show the path of the fleet’s archers, a lethal distraction from the SHIVA warheads. A single blue frigate MAC trace accompanied a small swarm of archers down onto the Corvus.

And what lay below the snapshot in time, emblazoned in bold, red lettering, made Victus’ blood run cold.

‘BATTLEPLAN CRIMSON: T: -00:19.21’

“You were right. The broken chain of command. The incomplete translation. The open broadcast. All of it.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

Halliday stared down at her sandals, avoiding Victus’ gaze: “I… I thought you would want to see it. You made all the right decisions. I would have done the same thing in your place.”

There was silence on Triumph’s bridge, with only the dull thrumming of the reactors to fill the void.

“It was never personal, you know.”

Victus looked up.

“We had standing orders from Harper, orders to crush the Covenant using whatever means necessary. And we lost so much to hold them here. Our crews… you’ve seen the debris. And then for another group of aliens to show up and start poking around where they don’t belong…”

She looked away, taking a moment to collect herself.

“I was angry. I was alone. I was scared. Anywhere else in the galaxy, I might have been more diplomatic. But not here. Not above my home.”

Victus didn’t answer, gaze stuck on the unrealized destruction on the holo-table. How close the AI next to him came to killing them all. He wondered if he would have even been able to react to the attack. An image of Corvus’ bridge in chaos flashed through his mind.

Halliday continued.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’m not some unhinged psychopath. I’m not stupid. I know your people trust me about as far as they can throw a MAC round. But I am a professional. Which means I am going to do everything in my power to get you and your crew through this and figure out what happened to my people.”

She finally stood up, looking Victus in his eyes. A trace of a smile appears on her avatar’s face.

“I’m looking forwards to working with you captain Victus.”

A weight disappears from Victus’ shoulders.

“Likewise, Halliday.”

In the intervening days, Citadel volunteers had begun to trickle onboard Triumph as they were needed. Victus had welcomed the first teams of engineers, and minor repairs on all decks had quickly begun in preparation for Triumph’s drydocking above Mars. He spent those days walking the halls, familiarizing himself with his new ship. Mostly, the corridors were empty. Occasionally he would stumble upon a repair team, fixing machinery that had been damaged in the vicious fighting under the watchful eye of Halliday. He also encountered a few cleanup squads, who were carefully cleaning up the grim reminders of Triumph’s previous crew.

He had gotten Triumph’s crest emblazoned on his armor and requested the same on his crew’s uniforms. On Corvus, he had encouraged pride in their ship amongst his crew. A crew that fought together survived together. Even here on Triumph, he suspected it would be much the same. And it all started with him.

And when he asked Halliday, she flashed a mischievous grin, and led him to where he could find patches with Triumph’s ship’s badge. He found one of the fabric patches in a cabinet in the ship’s store. The design featured the ship’s bow-on silhouette in the center on a midnight background, surrounded by a golden wreath. At the top, the ship’s name, and hull number. At the bottom, words his translator couldn’t understand.

So, he asked Halliday.

“Per Victoriam, Pacem,” she said, pride surging through her voice, “through victory, peace.”

And as he attached the patch to his armored shoulder through creative use of industrial strength adhesive, he thought back to the ship’s motto, and grinned, realizing that things might work out just perfectly between the Turians and their new ship.

Now, the skeleton crew was slowly performing the detailed physical systems check for Triumph’s first slipspace jump since the ship’s stand against the Covenant. Halliday had explained in layman’s terms the intricacies of UNSC FTL travel. How they tore a hole in the fabric of space, how they sailed the 11 dimensions of slipspace.

And more importantly, how the Covenant had always been orders of magnitude faster. How the next UNSC world was often under siege before word of the last destroyed colony even arrived. It meant there was never any chance of escape.

Halliday had guided him through what would happen when they made the jump to Mars. How a black swirling void would appear in front of the ship, how the temporal shifts in subspace would cause time to flow differently. She tried to explain the complicated mathematics behind slipspace navigation, but most of it went over Victus’ head. It was a short jump, she claimed; perfectly safe.

Victus was unsure to say the least. When Halliday proposed skipping the manual post-battle drive evaluation, as she had dozens of times when escaping the covenant, Victus steadfastly declined. He decided he didn’t want to tempt fate when tearing apart subspace.

With a skeleton crew, who had never seen a slipspace drive in their lives, the usual 6 to 12-hour evaluation was stretching into its 4th day, engineers being carefully guided along by Halliday. There was never a chance to rest however, because integrating a fleet of new, semi-autonomous units into a Turian fleet was a whole lot of worth.

On Triumph’s bridge, he stood next to Halliday as she and Canberra’s AI explained UNSC battle strategy to the captains of the expeditionary fleet. It was strange standing here opposite his countrymen, standing in support of an AI.

“…and, given the strength of covenant shielding, Marathon class cruisers began to be used in two ship batteries to concentrate fire. Triumph and Feeling Lucky, for example, were set aside as 5th fleet’s heavy-hitter battery. The other Marathons led large frigate teams,” she explained excitedly, displaying fleet movements from the battle for Earth.

“Even still,” Tibril rebuked, “Our forces don’t concentrate firepower in a single, unshielded frame. To commit our forces to defend two massive targets could be catastrophic!”

“If we are unlucky enough to encounter the Covenant, Admiral, distributed firepower is never going to be enough. We need to hit hard, and all at once. And we need to keep our heavy guns in the fight. That means Kilware, Canberra, and Triumph,” Halliday replied, her annoyance growing.

“You are asking us to throw away ships to save your own skin! Your strategy is going to get ships destroyed. It’s better to protect our cruisers and frigates with the strength of our dreadnoughts then…”

“What don’t you understand about this? You CAN’T survive an encounter with the Covenant unscathed. Better to lose a frigate or two than a cruiser…” Halliday exclaimed.

Luckily, Odysseus interjected. Victus had quickly come to appreciate the cool headedness of the AI from Canberra in these hours long discussions.

“What Halliday means, Admiral, is that if we encounter a large Covenant force, we would be lucky to get any ships out of there in one piece. That said, given the state of this part of the galaxy, I doubt we will encounter much of anything. If we do find a ship, it will likely be a scout rather than an entire fleet,” the AI’s soldier avatar explained.

Halliday had told him that Odysseus presented himself as a marine from the Rainforest Wars, some civil conflict the humans had waged some hundreds of years ago. It seemed that even without the Covenant, humans had found plenty of excuses to fight.

An agreement was quickly reached after Odysseus’ interjection; the UNSC fleet would have a small cruiser detachment devoted to their protection, however the fleet as a whole would be managed under Tibril. It seemed even the AI recognized the value of only having one commander on the battlefield.

Halliday used the resulting quiet to push for something else on her agenda, and in trying to present a unified Triumph, he had to push aside his misgivings. He had been dreading this one.

“And on to our resupply armaments manifest…”

“And how you want us to load up your silos with WMD’s?” One of the cruiser captains laughed.

“Nuclear weapons have been a cornerstone in the UNSC’s strategy against the Covenant. If we are going to guide you through Covenant captured UNSC space, we need to be at full strength,” Odysseus followed diplomatically.

“We have concerns about the usage of nuclear weapons around garden worlds, Odysseus. We couldn’t in good faith allow for the poisoning of garden worlds given their scarcity,” Tibril answered, casting a scowl at the captain who spoke out of turn.

Victus turned his head to see Halliday clench her fists, with a crazed look in her eye. Uh oh.

“Oh, trust me, you moralistic bastard” Halliday bit back, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “nukes are nothing compared to what the Covenant would do.”

There it is. Like clockwork, the call exploded into chaos. Victus had gotten used to it by now. His initial conversation with Halliday had proved to be more the exception to the rule, a rare moment of vulnerability from the AI. More recently, Victus had discovered that she was an awful negotiator. If felt like most of these fleet negotiation calls resulted in Halliday chucking the figurative equivalent of a stick of dynamite into the conversation.

And yet, somehow, she and Odysseus always seemed to push Tibril further than Victus had ever seen him pushed. Maybe it was a classic case of “good c-sec, bad c-sec”, but the pair of AIs often got their way. It didn’t hurt that they controlled the largest operational ships in the galaxy. Nor that Tibril seemed to be doing anything to avoid fracturing the delicate alliance. Regardless, it was no different with Triumph and Canberra’s nukes, once the call had finally calmed down.

Tibril agreed to allow Triumph and Canberra to arm themselves with SHIVA nuclear missiles, after another rapid-fire back and forth negotiation with Odysseus. Victus supposed it was UNSC garden worlds at risk anyways. Who am I to tell somebody they can’t irradiate their own world?

The conversation moved on, now focused on how the fleet should move through UNSC space. Victus had supposed they would rendezvous with the UNSC ships in a target system, but Halliday had other ideas. Soon the terms ‘slipspace wake’ and ‘radiation shielding’ were being thrown around, and Victus began to suspect that many Turian captains would be having a stressful few weeks gearing up for the expedition.

// Office of CINCONI, Date: 2553/1/20

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: ONI/CINCONI/ProjectOUROBORUS

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Status update on completion progress.

AUTHORIZATION NEEDED

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): BBX 8995-1, Acting on behalf of Parangosky, Margaret O (CINCONI).

ACCEPTED

WAITING

DONE

FILES RETRIEVED

//

//FILE 1-1: Project: OUROBORUS Readiness

1: INF-101 ‘INFINITY’, Infinity Class. STATUS: FITTING OUT (BEHIND SCHEDULE).

DEADLINES (abbreviated):

a. Long-range sensor installation and configuration. Scheduled: 11/29/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

b. Mark X Macedon drive configuration. Scheduled: 12/8/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

c. MAC targeting array installation. Scheduled: 12/9/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

d. Primary powerplant configuration. Scheduled: 12/14/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

e. Crew berthing A through AA fitting out. Scheduled: 12/16/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

f. MJOLNIR servicing facilities installation. Scheduled: 12/24/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

g. Shield systems configuration. Scheduled: 12/25/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

h. MAC configuration. Scheduled: 12/30/52. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

i. Final subroutine and software checks. Scheduled: 1/1/53. ERROR. INCOMPLETE.

j. Mark X Macedon optimization sequence. Scheduled: 1/21/53. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

k. Archer linkage finalization and configuration. Scheduled 2/14/53. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

l. Mark X Macedon jumping solutions deadline. Scheduled: 4/30/53. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

m. All subsystems complete, pre-commissioning trials. Scheduled: 5/24/53. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

COMPLETION DATE: Expected; 5/24/53. Actual; INDETERMINATE.

2: INF-102 ‘ETERNITY’, Infinity Class. STATUS: PRE-PRODUCTION AND MODULE FABRICATION.

DEADLINES (abbreviated):

a. Titanium A-3 plate fabrication. Scheduled: 7/8/53. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

b. Structural element fabrication. Scheduled: 11/2/53. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

c. Keel laying. Scheduled: 3/1/54. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

d. Reactor module fabrication. Scheduled: 5/3/54. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

e. Reactor module installation. Scheduled: 6/17/54. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

f. Life support module fabrication. Scheduled: 8/1/54. ON TRACK.

g. Life support module installation. Scheduled: 11/23/54. ON TRACK.

h. Slipspace module fabrication. Scheduled: 10/14/55. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

i. Electronics module fabrication. Scheduled: 6/7/55. ON TRACK.

j. Preliminary power routing. Scheduled: 12/12/55. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

k. Electronics module installation. Scheduled: 7/23/56. ON TRACK.

l. MAC module fabrication. Scheduled: 5/9/57. ON TRACK.

m. Framing structure complete. Scheduled: 12/31/57. BEHIND SCHEDULE.

COMPLETION DATE: Expected; Summer 2561. Actual; INDETERMINATE.

3: ANALYSIS:

FATAL DELAYS in the production of INF-101. Complete stoppage of non-automated construction as of 11/3/2552. Delivery date unattainable.

CONCERNING DELAYS in the production of INF-102. Complete stoppage of non-automated construction as of 11/3/2552. Delivery date unlikely.

//

Varso submitted his transfer to his division commander on an energetic Sunday morning. The ship was filled with activity. There were rumblings about the ship. Some kind of test, about what he didn’t know.

All he did know was that the initial application deadline for the UNSC liaison program was today. He had thought long and hard about the offer. He would be leaving behind his ship. He would be leaving behind his team. All for the unfamiliar titanium halls of a human ship. He would be outside of the standard chain of command, in an unorthodox position. Any sane Turian would recommend against it, sticking to the centuries old structure that forged the beating heart of Turian society.

And yet, he couldn’t get the images of New Mombasa out of his head. The brutal nighttime action of the ODST. The desolate streets he had witnessed in daytime. And the city AI that tried everything it could to save an alien fleet. He had heard the murmurings, they all had. Despite the lack of an official announcement, it was no secret. The crew of the UNSC fleet was long dead. At the helm of the ghost fleet was a collection of artificial intelligences. He wondered if they were anything like the city AI.

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he was reminded that the city AI was warning him about these fleet AI. In joining the liaison program, he would put himself at the mercy of an AI that just months earlier had wanted to kill them all. He wasn’t sure he would trust a Turian with that kind of history, much less an AI.

And still, he couldn’t help but wonder why the city AI had helped them. Was it out of some form of compassion? An obligation for the public good? Or maybe it was just flawed programming. And perhaps most importantly, would the other AI, the ones controlling the goliath cruisers have a similar mindset.

In short, Varso was walking into an unknown situation. And as an infantryman, that sent a chill down his spine.

But he had to go. For himself. For the ODST. For the discarded toys he found on that New Mombasa street. For the corpses that had littered the city during the nighttime mission. For every man and woman who laid down their lives in vain to save their species.

The UNSC fleet was all that was left of the human’s war, the last sharpened blade in the UNSC’s once great war machine. And Varso supposed that the AI were their inheritors.

Varso was Turian; he was not disheartened by the doomed struggle of the humans but inspired. Where the others could see ruins, he had been on the ground, seen the fierce battles.

So Varso handed in his papers. He wasn’t sure what he could do as a ground-pounder aboard a massive warship, but he would do what he could to save this last sliver of humanity. To live where they lived. Fight where they fought. And when it was all over, and he returned to Turian space, he could tell their story.

The moment Aurelia saw the posting for the UNSC liaison, she jumped at the opportunity. Minutes afterwards, she was signing the papers her division head had given her. There was no resistance to her desire to join the UNSC team, as a matter of fact, more than half of the scientists transferred from Xiphos to Corvus were signing up.

Looking back, her decision was never in any doubt. They had no bonds with the Turian navy. They were already amongst strangers on a strange ship. And the opportunities were endless. An entire new world of technology. She could learn human technology in a way nobody else could. She could emerge as one of the premier scientific minds on humanity. She could learn things that nobody else in the galaxy knew.

She had studied dead civilizations before, having joined countless expeditions searching for Prothean relics. And now the opportunity to learn directly from a dead civilization had fallen into her lab. The AI was in desperate need of skilled scientific minds who could help to bridge the technological difference between the two fleets. That much was obvious.

No self-respecting scientist would turn down this opportunity. At least not one still in the prime of her life.

So, she had turned in her application. Quickly thereafter, she received notice that she had been accepted. And after that followed the transfer orders. She would join the cruiser Triumph. She liked the name. She had even turned off her auto-translator and tried to learn the name in its native language through the language software, the unfamiliar sounds making her mouth feel like it was made of puddy.

Aurelia read her orders over and over again. Eventually, she caught a detail she hadn’t noticed. She was to join Triumph during its drydocking over Mars. For the citadel ships, the journey would be trivial. The fourth planet was currently opposite Earth, a short jump across the system. However, the UNSC ship didn’t have a mass effect core. Which meant, she would finally get to see their FTL in person.

Aurelia almost couldn’t contain her excitement when Corvus’ science department got their last mission before they went their separate ways. They received a data dump about a Shaw-Fujikawa drive, and ‘slipspace’. And more importantly, they were assigned to monitor Triumph’s slipspace jump.

Triumph had finished her pre-jump checks long before the more heavily damaged Canberra. When she jumped to Mars, Corvus would be waiting for her, to chart the readings from her reemergence into real space. And more importantly, to gather data from the Asari fighter that would be trailing her slipspace wake.

It all quickly became obvious to Aurelia. Because of course it did. The UNSC ships can’t travel FTL in real space. Which meant, if they were going to stick with the Citadel fleet, the fleet would have to travel through slipspace with them. Hence the non-piloted Asari fighter, a test ship to see if reality matched the predictive models.

Included in the data packet on slipspace travel, was a section on a so-called ‘slipspace wake’, where slower ships could transit slipspace faster if they were trailing a faster ship. Theoretically, this effect could be used to transport a ship that didn’t have a drive at all. It had never been done in practice, and no captain was eager to surrender their ship to the howling void that would be opened up in space. So, the second fleet donated a drone operated fighter for the cause. And packed it to the gills with equipment to measure the safety of the jump.

All of this meant that Aurelia would be getting a front row seat to the Triumph’s jump. They all would. The entire science wing was crowded into Corvus’ observation deck, setting up processing equipment as Corvus made the short jump to Mars.

As they emerged, the gentle whine of the eezo drive faded into the background. In front of them, a red planet, capped on either side by bright white caps. Large green and grey splotches were scattered across the surface, clear signs of the UNSC’s terraforming efforts. In orbit, a trio of massive drydocks, waiting to receive the cruisers. Each looked like the rips of some enormous animal, spindly gantries and scaffolding stretching up from the base. Each ‘rib’ held large adjustable magnetic clamps to hold the ships in place for their refit.

A space elevator stretched up vertically from the surface, no doubt for transporting the industrial materials needed for wartime repairs. Even now, the gondola on the elevator was travelling up and down, ferrying supplies to the Turian repair crews onboard the drydocks.

Everything was set. Time for the main event.

The observation deck of Triumph was the most populated it had been since the incident. A pair of Asari technicians had installed a temporary control unit for the test fighter, and they had just finished running the diagnostic program. On the holo-table behind him, Victus could see the red dot of the fighter circling behind Triumph’s stern. The remains of CSG-6 were also formed up behind him, the two frigates also making the trip to Mars. They wouldn’t be serviced in orbit, but rather landing on the surface, in the massive repair complex of the Sinoviet naval yards.

The foreman of the technician crew was also on the bridge, on hand to witness the payoff of the days of careful checks and evaluations. He was in one of the seats jutting out over the void of space at the front of the ship, staring down into the empty space around him. Turian ships usually had observation decks somewhere, but they were always far more protected. As a result, the magnificent views afforded by Triumph’s bridge had initially shocked Victus. He had spent hours sitting in the forward seats, gazing into the empty abyss below him.

Halliday maintained her usual position at the pedestal of the holo-table, running through the millions of calculations for their short slipspace jump. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she was keeping a watchful eye over the strangers on her bridge. An impatient frown formed on her face, eager to get underway. Victus supposed this was all routine to her.

To the citadel fleet however, it was a first look at a new method of FTL. And more importantly, trans-dimensional travel. Corvus had long since departed to witness Triumph’s arrival at Mars. The rest of the expeditionary fleet was set far back, leaving ample room for Triumph’s transit. Victus had little doubt every captain in the fleet was watching right now.

The Asari technicians raised a hand in signal. The fighter was ready. The red dot stopped moving behind Triumph, resting on her port quarter. Victus looked to Halliday and nodded. A smile broke across her face, and she opened a line to the expeditionary fleet.

“Triumph is ready for slipspace transit,” she announced.

The disembodied voice of Admiral Tibril replied.

“Proceed at will Triumph.”

Halliday’s voice cracked over the ship’s intercom, broadcasting on all decks.

“All hands, prepare for slipspace transition.”

Nothing happened for a moment. Then the background growl of Triumph’s reactors surged into a trembling roar, as her massive plasma torch engines throttled up. Triumph started to move, slowly at first, slowly building speed, the roaring engines dumping kinetic energy into Triumph’s 12-million-ton frame. Victus could feel the acceleration under his feet, even through the ship’s powerful inertial dampers.

The watched the stationary expeditionary slip past, as Triumph built up a furious reserve of momentum. Speed aboard the UNSC cruiser felt much different to even the much faster Corvus. There was an imperceptible difference in how the ship moved, a property of the unaltered mass of Triumph’s conventional propulsion. He couldn’t settle on what exactly it was, but it was different.

The holo-table showed the expeditionary fleet and the rest of the 5th fleet disappearing behind them, the red dot of the Asari fighter easily keeping pace with the speeding cruiser. CSG-1’s twin surviving frigates kept a close formation with Triumph, accelerating alongside them. The transition point rapidly approached the fleet.

“Engaging.”

There was a series of rapid muffled thuds, like an old combustion engine starting, before a loud metallic screech. He felt a sharp tug at his stomach, and an acute nausea threatened to overtake him. The very air of the bridge seemed to twist and warp, and static charge filled the air. Victus heard a gasp and followed it to the window at the front of the bridge. Ahead of them was a pinprick of blue light, electricity arcing out of that. Rapidly, it grew, and the center opened into a black abyss. Triumph’s drive howled. The radius of the rift ballooned, a thin blue veil of mist swirling around an empty space, a void.

The technician at the bow sat motionless, awestruck. Victus couldn’t say he felt much different, his nausea now settling into a minuscule tug across his whole body towards the roaring void.

The furious sound of Triumph’s slipspace drive settled into a more controlled buzz, and the rift stopped growing, occasionally arcing electricity over its expansive maw. Instead, Triumph hurtled towards it, until the swirling rift filled the entirety of the bridge’s view, washing the bridge in deep hues of blues and purples.

He turned his head and squeezed his eyes as Triumph blitzed into the rift, some subconscious animal part of his brain certain that it would slam into the portal. Instead, there was a shudder down the length of the ship, as if the ship suddenly dropped from beneath them. And suddenly, everything was smooth.

Victus looked up. The stary veil above Earth was gone. There was no sign of the rift. Just empty blackness. No stars. No planets. Nothingness. His entire life he had thought that space was empty. Now, faced with the blank expanse of slipspace, he knew how wrong he was.

The tug at his extremities was gone. It felt as if the ship had stopped moving entirely, and if weren’t for the growl of the engines, he wouldn’t know they were moving. The air had stabilized, and he no longer felt the prickling sensation that had spread across his skin.

“Welcome to subspace.”

Victus looked back to Halliday, who had an amused smile on her face.

“Most UNSC crewmembers have a similar reaction during their first jump.”

Victus took a second to collect himself and reminded himself that he had a duty here. He checked the holo-table. The display was dramatically different. The red dot of the Asari fighter was still there, trailing in their stern. The green dots of the escorting frigates followed them, trailing slightly behind. Around them were lines almost like a topographical map, gentle curves, and twists that he couldn’t comprehend. Currents in the empty void. Triumph and her fleet cut through some and glided over others, yet Victus couldn’t feel a thing.

The Asari drone technicians were carefully monitoring their instruments. Halliday had instructed them to not attempt to maneuver the fighter in subspace. Although it may not feel like it, she had said, Triumph was executing a series of mathematically complex maneuvers to keep on course. Their path to Mars would not be a straight line. The fighter was riding her wake, the invisible disturbances left by the 12-million-ton warship, helping to keep the tiny fighter on path.

Victus distinctly realized that he was one of the first Turians to travel via slipspace. He was where no Turian had ever been before, trailblazing a new method of travel. He knew it would be the first of many firsts.

The radiation alarm blared on the sensors they had brought to Corvus’ bridge. The scientist reading the gauge reported the numbers. They had started barely above background, now it was rising steadily, emerging from a point in empty space. There was nothing outside the window yet, not even a ripple to suggest what was coming.

Then suddenly, there was a blue flash, and a spiraling blue rift emerged from nothing. The rift expanded until it was a sizable void, dark black space occupying the center. And then the huge frame of the Triumph came surging forwards, catapulted out of the rift with its fighter in tow. The rift collapsed behind them, and the systems of Corvus’ observation deck blared out alarms, and the overhead lights momentarily flickered.

Two more blue flares opened behind the cruiser, each spitting out a smaller UNSC frigate. Scientists scrambled around, jotting down notes and instrument readings. Aurelia was star struck, motionless, staring out the windows in the hopes of seeing the enchanting blue rifts once more, even though the slipspace portals had long since collapsed.

She watched the Asari fighter break off from Triumph, and fly towards Corvus: the fighter was intact and flyable. The theory worked. Triumph’s slipspace wake had catapulted the small fighter across hundreds of millions of kilometers in minutes.

Triumph herself glided towards one of the massive drydocks. The frigates broke off and darted down to the surface. That will be my ship. I will get to fly on THAT. A childish giddiness flowed over Aurelia, a feeling unlike anything she had felt in the last hundred years of her life. Suddenly, she wished she had been on the ship for its jump. Despite knowing that Triumph would transit slipspace hundreds of times more, she still somehow felt left out, a mere witness to the history that had just occurred.

Her reporting date to Triumph couldn’t come soon enough.

The Turian maintenance crew on drydock 6 watched the human cruiser bear down on them. They were used to Turian cruisers, even Turian dreadnoughts. From the bow, they looked like hunting birds, with long, thin prows and extended wings aft. The Triumph looked like nothing they had ever seen before, with the silhouette of a brick, or perhaps even a structural beam.

The ship slowed down as it slipped into the dock, and the Turians on EVA duty supervising the docking watched the titanium hull drift slowly by, at times only dozens of meters away. Pockmarks covered the hull, and they could see the lingering scars and battle up and down the flanks of the warship. More work for them.

Black Box had instructed them on the operation of the UNSC drydock, but at the end of the day, maintenance procedures rhymed across the galaxy. The particulars differed, sure, but the Turians felt well prepared as they evaluated the massive ship.

Reaction thrusters fired as the cruiser ground to a halt, filling up the entirety of the empty space in the drydock. The massive rib-like docking claps closed, connecting the hundreds of hard points across the ship. Umbilical buses darted across the gap, automatically plugging into thousands of ports on Triumph’s hull. Hundreds of meters further down the drydock, the docking gantry slid across to provide an airtight seal across Triumph’s airlock.

Across from the Turian, were a cluster of Triumph’s archer pods. The triangular pattern had seemed so small from the pictures shown to him aboard Corvus. Up close, the pods were massive. He watched as the hatches on the silos split in the middle, sliding open to reveal the mostly empty charred racks inside.

Elsewhere on the ship, access ports and armored plate was sliding and moving, making sure to give the workers access to every portion of Triumph that needed arming and repair.

And just like that, work begun.

One the bridge, Halliday grinned. Triumph would rise again.

Chapter 7: Allegiances

Chapter Text

The day that Varso boarded the shuttle, he boarded with only a large rucksack slung over his shoulder. His worldly belongings, all he kept close in his name. The sets of dress uniforms he was required to have on hand but the Hierarchy. His products for personal hygiene. The small mementos he had kept from various campaigns. The booklet with pressed plants from dozens of worlds. He hadn’t been able to collect any from Earth.

He had started it when he first deployed, an oversentimental young Turian who wanted to take a piece of Palaven with him into the hostile stars. He would justify itself to himself as a form of experiment, a collection of the galaxy’s diversity. After all, in his mind, a true Turian wouldn’t long for home in the way he knew he would. And despite his years of service, Varso continued the collection. And every time he opened the cover, he was greeted by the same crimson Cipritine bloom, pressed flat and preserved.

He had thought about taking one of the blades of grass growing in planters on the streets of New Mombasa. Or raiding the flowers in a clay pot on a residential balcony, the bizarre delicate flora of the Sol system. Something then had stopped him. And in the chaos afterwards, he hadn’t the time. And now, he couldn’t even remember why he didn’t pick the golden flower.

He supposed it didn’t matter.

Varso had paced Corvus’ halls the night before. His feet led him down to the science bay. Aurelia wasn’t there. In her stead, was an older Turian, pushing a large bin of artifacts brought up by the ground team. When Varso asked him what he was doing, he received a shrug and a simple answer.

“Junk. Science division says this stuff doesn’t have any potential applications for us.”

He saw the ragged stuffed animal he had retrieved from the alley in New Mombasa. It had square patches cut out of it; samples of the stuffing dragged out from the cavity inside. One of the beaded eyes at been removed for study. The thick dust that had blown through the empty streets still caked the delicate hairs.

The Turian continued out the door of the science bay. Varso turned away. As the door hissed shut behind him, something indescribable came over him. Like he was making a mistake. He rushed back into the hallway and snatched the toy from the cart. The older Turian scoffed before moving away down the hallway.

He had washed the toy when he returned to his quarters, ignoring the questioning gazes of the other soldiers in his berthing. He would leave them all soon anyways. That night, instead of preparing for his departure, we started fixing the animal, using the threads he kept for repairing damages to his uniform to sew patches on the ragged toy. When he was done, the animal was in a sorry state; it would need more repairing when he had the time. But now, safe inside his rucksack. It would make the journey to Triumph with him.

When he had reported to the shuttle, he hadn’t been expecting much. Sure enough, it was just three of them this flight, alongside the two pilots. The shuttle was in a corner of Corvus’ bay, the loud ruckus from the landing of a fighter patrol drowning out most conversation. Nobody in the bay spared them a second glance.

He recognized one of the Turians coming with him. And not in a good way. Varso wouldn’t consider himself a gossip. Nor would most self-respecting Turians in the fleet. But even he had certainly heard whispers about this Turian from other teams on Corvus. Lazy. f*ck-up. He was on the fast track to a stationing on some backwater planet in the corner of Turian space.

The other soldier was a much older Turian. A veteran of many years, obvious from the scars across his plates, clan tattoos nicked and misshapen from battles past. As he shifted his feet from left to right, Varso swore he could hear the old Turian’s joints popping. A corporal’s rank insignia flashed on Varso’s HUD. Old. No future.

The old Turian looked back at him quizzically. His eyes swept Varso up and down, taking a slight pause at his well-maintained armor and clear rucksack. Eventually, his eyes flicked to the third Turian and then met Varso’s eyes. Varso stared right back, challenging the old man to say something. The old Turian either got bored or backed down and gave Varso one last pitying shrug before sitting down.

Varso felt the shuttle lift-off beneath his feet. It glided out of Corvus’ hangar bay and the viewscreen flickered on. Ahead of them were the drydocks, as Corvus was standing vigilance alongside a small smattering of other Turian ships overseeing the repairs.

A long line trialed up from the planet’s surface, a miniature version of New Mombasa’s destroyed elevator. UNSC barges moved in perfectly coordinated paths back and forth from the station at the elevator’s apex to the drydocks. Varso watched as one of the lifts reached the station, just as another started down towards the ground.

In the drydock, it appeared to Varso like the UNSC was multiplying.

He expected to see his destination, the Triumph awaiting them. Instead, he saw the massive frame of three enormous cruisers sitting in the drydock. They were all the same drab gray, and identical to Varso’s eyes. They all bore the same shape, tall, blocky pillars that looked like they had no business slipping through the veil of space. The sterns of the three ships faced the shuttles. The engine blocks of the two cruisers on either side seemed normal enough, two giant engine bells surrounded by smaller maneuvering thrusters. The ship in the center, however, was missing its upper engine and much of the hull plating above it. Where the engine should be was a massive cavity, and Varso could see the twisted piping and void spaces, a mesmerizing tangle of engineering Varso couldn’t hope to understand. The engine looked carefully removed, as if by a surgeon.

The shuttle continued to approach and moved carefully around the port side of the left-most cruiser. Varso saw the intense blue lights of plasma torches on the outer hull, the dramatic flare of the cutter dwarfing the minuscule figures wielding it, cutting around deep gouges and holes in the armor. He knew that the outer plating wasn’t exactly thin. Now that’s not a standard hierarchy cutter…

Indeed, the Turians working on the hull seemed to be surrounded by human equipment. Drab colored power supplies, and blocky open space work platforms were scattered across the hull of the cruiser. Working in tandem with them was one of the massive arms of the dockyard, extending from the rib-like structures of the drydock itself.

Varso watched another section of the hull, where one of the large arms had been attached. With a gentle tug, a huge portion of the cruiser’s armor lifted away, revealing the decks underneath. The armor being removed was twisted and burned; a gaping hole burned in its center. Behind the plate, the warped smear of the interior bulkheads across three different decks where entire compartments had been melted away.

This cruiser had dozens of similar repair sites across the length of the hull. Some had already been patched, a massive grey armor plate hastily welded in place over the portion where the damaged hull had been removed. Others hadn’t even had work begun on them. Varso spied a particularly nasty gash directly above the hangar bay, stretching for dozens of meters in either direction.

The shuttle continued around the ship towards its bow, near the carefully cordoned region of space around the drydock where scrap was being left. Varso could already see hundreds of thousands of tons of slagged Titanium drifting in space.

As the front ends of each cruiser became visible, Varso could read the names inscribed on their bows.

The cruiser nearest to them, the one they had observed being repaired, was Canberra.

Next to her was a ship he had never seen before. The optics on his armor picked up the name clearly enough, and with the translation software, he could finally understand the human’s language. St. Paul. The St. Paul was missing both of her MAC barrels, and much of her secondary battery. Across her hull empty barbettes covered the warship. Huge clean cuts covered the cruiser. Entire sections were exposed to space, the neat, organized lattice work of the decks beneath twinkling in the sunlight. Much like Canberra, St. Paul’s hull was being worked on too. The same bright blue flares bit into the intact portions of her armor. The sturdy drydocks clamped to these cut sections of the hull, before ripping entire slabs away from the ship’s frame.

The armor they were removing, however, was not damaged. The hull was still smooth and polished, lacking even the small pockmarks that covered the other two cruisers. If the Canberra was a battered varren, cut and bloodied, the St. Paul was like the hardy avian species of Palaven, reflective sides glittering the in the Martian sun. The Turian cutters, however, took no head, and ripped into the ship like scavengers on carrion, tearing apart the cruiser piece by piece, ripping into the exposed hull beneath.

Last in the lineup was Triumph. The shuttle slipped in front of her, and Varso could see work being done on both of her flanks as well, although under far less intensity than in Canberra. Varso watched the crews work on a penetrating scar on Triumph’s upper hull. He could see the dark hole in the thick armor, disappearing into darkness as it plunged into wide hull of the cruiser, a meter of titanium pushed aside like it was water.

The shuttle continued around Triumph’s port flank, flying by the freshly repainted stripe running vertically down her hull. Varso decided that Triumph had come out of the maelstrom over earth rather well. At least compared to the jagged remains of the ships still drifting in the remains of the UNSC battle line. Or the battered Canberra.

The shuttle slipped underneath Triumph’s dark mass, where the open hangar doors awaited them. Inside, separated by thin film, was a bustle of activity. The viewscreen flickered off as the shuttle entered its landing cycle. Varso and his comrades got to their feet as the ramp fell behind them and they walked out into Triumph’s hanger.

Varso took three bold steps into his new home and then immediately froze. The hangar was huge, a pair of massive elevators in the back ferrying storage racks up and down. In the walls were recessed bays with strange dropships stored in them. And filling the hangar, stacked 5 meters high, and forming a maze of racks and boxes? More ordinance than Varso had ever seen in his life. He saw racks after racks of white missiles with a bright yellow stripe. Enough fireworks to blow this hangar all the way back to Earth.

Around the missiles were other forms of munitions. Dozens of huge pallets of cased ammunition lay waiting to be distributed to Triumph’s point defense cannons. Turian technicians were unloading one of the boxes, laying down dozens of meters of belted ammunition onto carts to be carried elsewhere in the ship.

In a corner were thousands of larger shells, stacked 10 high. Even more Turians loitered around these, sitting atop the covering separating the layers of munitions. They bore the uniforms of hierarchy artillery teams. They had quite obviously managed to find their comfort zone amongst the tons of high explosive packing the bay. To somebody who never carried much more than the occasional demolitions charge, however, the casual handling of these munitions sent small shivers down Varso’s spine.

A loud rumble drew Varso’s attention overhead, where a crane attached to the roof of the hangar unloaded elongated dark shapes from a landed UNSC barge. They were as wide as a Turian, and about three times Varso’s height. The crane carried them one at a time, setting down the shapes on bright orange carriages. When the tension in the heavy cables released, the stout carriages sagged under the weight of the shapes. Other Turians waited by the electronic controls of the carriages, before moving them one after the other to the massive elevator in the rear of the hangar.

Behind Varso, the shuttle that brought him here lifted off and darted back out of the hangar. For a moment, its place was empty, the lone section of the hangar not bustling with activity. Then Varso watched as another ship glide beneath another ship quickly taking its place, another small band of Turians and a pair of Asari stumbling out of its bay, bearing the same look of trepidation and awe on their faces that Varso suspected still lingered on his face.

A voice called out across the cacophony of Triumph’s hangar. Varso took no notice, instead watching as another dark gray projectile was unloaded from the barge. Again, the voice called out, this time louder. And then somebody tapped his shoulder. Varso wheeled around to find a familiar asari face, grinning ear to ear.

“So, the soldier boy DID grow a heart…”

The engineering crew of the Elia huddled around the holo-screen of the small backwater bar, burning time by downing cheap drinks. The air was dingy and reeked of state alcohol and unwashed patrons. The bar was rusting and scratched, and on either side of the small group, native residents grumbled about their lives’ thousand grievances. The battery powered lights flickered periodically, drawing from the town’s large battery banks. During the day, solar arrays in the arid wastelands collected the power needed to run the town when people could work during the cooler nights. It was a delicate balance; one the locals had figured out well. Life went on like this. Like their batteries, the townsfolk followed a simple cycle. Work hard during the nights, to earn their diminutive paychecks, before resting during the blazing hot day in a futile attempt to be ready and rested for the next shift. It was monotonous, and it was hard, but it was a living.

That was until the sleek Asari research vessel had arrived a month ago, engine trailing thick black smoke caused by a blown drive bearing, carefully helped down to the surface by a passing tug.

The Asari crew of the Elia certainly were an unusual addition to the town. Off in the distance, the sleek science vessel gleamed in the pre-dawn light, surrounded by the dark, rusted shapes of the local craft. A hoop-like segment of her hull had been removed to access the more delicate sections of Elia’s drive.

However, the diagnosis was grim. It turns out that a military grade drive bearing isn’t something that can be found lying around on any backwater world. What’s worse, Elia was once the modified pleasure yacht of an aging matriarch before it found its calling exploring the galaxy. Which means that she was old, expensive, and rare. Which was a great thing if you wanted to flaunt your wealth to the Thessia elite, but less than ideal if you needed to find replacement parts on a planet that saw a handful of merchants a month.

And so, the weeks dragged on into a month, waiting for their custom order from a Thessia foundry to arrive to the planet. The Asari were a tolerated presence in the town, at least for now. They were faces and new stories in a town tired of the same old routine. And when the town discovered that Elia was buried under kilometers of military secrets and classified information, rumors exploded. What the hell was a pleasure yacht turned science ship doing running their engines hot enough to crack a drive bearing?

By this point, the engineers had heard most of the rumors, either asked directly by a local bold enough to confront them or overheard the hushed whispers in the corner of the bar.

They were an undercover team of Asari commandos, sent to ambush pirates.

No, no, they were clearly a group of rich Asari who got their thrills through a high-stakes underground racing circuit.

That’s ridiculous. Clearly the Geth are invading, and the government is trying to keep it under wraps! They blew their engines out running away!

They are probably sent here to spy on us, and make sure we are all paying our taxes.

The engineers couldn’t help but laugh, as surely, day after day, the stories got more and more ridiculous. And they had been sure to stoke the flames of rumor, so that they might enjoy something during their wait on this rock.

But now, the novelty of the group had begun to wear out. Their arrival in the bar that morning, for instance, was only met with a few scattered greetings, before the patrons quickly returned to their drinks. Even the propositions from lonely young workers, desperate for the “attention” from Elia’s Asari crew, had died out when it became clear how few of the Asari aboard Elia shared any interest.

Now, the bartender knew their orders about secrecy, and no longer watched them with a suspicious gaze. The holo-screen flickered and cracked, audio leaking out from speakers across the bar.

And suddenly, the bar went silent. On the screen was a well-dressed Asari reporter reporting live from the Citadel. The chyron was bold, and unapologetic.

“CIVILIZATION BEYOND RELAY 314 CONTACTED, COUNCIL ANNOUNCES”

The barkeep turns up the speakers. Somebody murmurs before they are quickly hushed.

“…fleet sent to find the cause of the tragedy in the border systems this past November has located a foreign civilization, the council claims. For more information, we go to our presidium correspondent, Asha Trellal. Good evening, Asha. Asha, what is the latest in this story?”

“Thank you, Carses. Councilor Tevos spoke to us this evening when the news broke, and she answered what questions we could. She told us that the civilization calls themselves the United Earth Government, and has a military branch known as the UNSC. They call themselves ‘humans’. The citadel fleet arrived peacefully over their home world, Earth in what is now being designated as the Sol system.”

“Fascinating. Given the peaceful circ*mstances of the first contact, are negotiations already underway to introduce these humans to the citadel?”

“Not exactly, Carses. The humans are in a grave position, according to the councilor. She tells us that they were recently involved in a vicious war with their neighbors in the Orion Arm. They were pushed back to the Sol system, and early reports suggest a horrific genocide. When the November 3rd pulse ripped through their space it wiped out most of what was left. However, some UEG and UNSC leadership survived the attacks, and have negotiated in person with councilor Tevos.”

“I…I don’t know what to say. Did the councilor say anything about this other race? Will the Citadel council bring them to justice? Could they pose a threat to undefended systems?”

“I shared these concerns with the councilor, but she was adamant that the aggressor races, known to the humans as the Covenant, suffered greatly from the pulse, and so far, no they show no signs of survival. While the pulse had a tragic effect on the borders of Turian space, it appears to have had a much more dire effect on the humans and the covenant, which are far closer to the estimated origin of the pulse.”

“This pulse, Asha, is it possible that it could be a weapon developed by either the humans or the covenant?”

“The councilor found that unlikely, given the extensive damage to both. In her visit to the Sol system, she found the humans in just as much confusion as we were.”

“Tragic, truly tragic Asha. To circle back, however, why AREN’T the humans being invited to join the citadel. Is it not our responsibility as the head of galactic civilization to take care of lesser civilizations? We could provide them with the aid they need.”

“The councilor expressed that there are several catching points on citadel integration for the humans. The councilor assured me however, that the council has come to a groundbreaking agreement with the humans, one which will ensure the prosperity of both our peoples.”

“That is always good news. Did the councilor elaborate on these ‘catching points’ on citadel integration? And any clues what the plan is to aid the humans in their plight?”

“Both good questions Carses. The councilor refused to elaborate, however my contacts in the Asari Navy seem to indicate potential hang-ups involving the Treaty of Farixen. It seems that during their conflict with the Covenant, the UNSC constructed many high-tonnage dreadnoughts. However, Tevos has announced a partnership with the UEG despite this.”

“The remnants of the UNSC battle fleet will assist the Citadel expeditionary fleet on the search for the source of the pulse. On this voyage, they will investigate the status of human worlds that have fallen out of contact, and patrol for any covenant presence. In return, the humans have asked Tevos to permit colonists to populate their cities and help to preserve their culture and heritage.”

“Am I hearing you correctly Asha? The humans are both offering worlds to expand to as well as military assistance to the citadel fleet? That seems one-sided.”

“The councilor agreed. However, she reminded me that the human population is now a tiny fraction of what it was even five years ago, according to the councilor’s reports. The humans are in very real danger of going extinct, as I have been told. They have infrastructure for billions that will crumble without support. I am told that the humans wish to preserve their cities, in the event that they can one day repopulate them. They are willing to exchange a permanent citadel presence for this hope.”

“Thank you, Asha. Truly unprecedented times. This takes us straight into live coverage of councilor Tevos’ press conference on this new colonization program, right here after this break.”

The bar was dead silent. Some of the locals stared at the screens with a look of shock and mistrust. They had grown used to being far removed from the high society on the citadel. Should this ‘deal’ with the UNSC fall through, it would undoubtedly be border colonies like this one that bore the brunt of the assault.

On others’ faces however, the Elia engineers could see hope, and anticipation. Life on the border was hard. If there was anything the engineers had learned stranded on this rock, even the common luxuries of established space could be rarities out here. If the humans could offer a new opportunity that didn’t have to be clawed from the rock and earth, they knew that many of the patrons here might take it in a heartbeat.

To the crew of the Elia however, the news was only met with relief. Half of the crew was still certain that the expedition was to be eliminated in nuclear hellfire the second the moment they left the system. To learn of a peaceful resolution to the conflict was, well, inspiring. It almost made the month stranded out here worth it. Almost.

Unfortunately, one of the bar’s wiser patrons seemed to notice the lack of world changing surprise from the Asari engineers at the news. They sat in their corner of the bar, avoiding eye contact with the other patrons. Some leaned over to their neighbor with small whispers. And when the patron spoke, all eyes turned to him.

“So. You Asari in your fancy science vessel break down after running like hell from the border systems. You claim you can’t tell us anything out of some order of military secrecy. And then, only a month later, news of a new civilization beyond 314 breaks.”

The room was silent. The look of nervousness on one of the younger engineers told the patron that he had struck gold. A mocking sneer spread across his face.

“So, blue, what does this Earth look like?”

Osh’Leih nar Teslaya cursed as the bolt finally broke loose, her hand slamming into the solid frame of the massive transverse shock absorption cylinder. The bolt zipped free from the housing above her head, pinged off her mask, and clattered conveniently out of reach below the steel grate she was laying on. She was smudged head to toe in grease, crammed into a narrow alcove in the back of a freighter’s landing assembly. She barely had room to move, much less roll over onto her stomach to try to reach futilely for the bolt that had doubtlessly fallen the meter to the bottom of the landing bay.

Stupid bosh’tet captain and his stupid krogan tools.

The oversized wrench dwarfed her slender hands and barely fit in the tight quarters of her workspace. This was a space that needed finesse, a delicate hand. Had the bolts not been rusted and stuck like cement, she would have used her own tools. She had wanted to drill out the bolt and re-tap the hole, but the captain of this vessel decided he had neither the time nor the money to buy new bolts. Or so he claimed. Instead, he had just shoved an ancient, oversized wrench in her hands and told her to go down and “do it right”.

Kiyet.

She held her still smarting hand to her chest, before slamming the wrench into the housing above. It left a nasty nick in the filthy steel of the housing, but it’s not like that stupid captain would ever venture down here himself to inspect her work. Still, with the bolt certainly well out of reach, she couldn’t finish her job down here without inching her way out of this crevice and back to the parts bin, where she would find another equally corroded bolt that would probably last about a month before it too needed to be replaced. She didn’t even know how this ship was still running.

She began inching through the cramped crawlspace of the bay, back to the access hatch that led to the engineering bay and the sections of the ship designed for crew members to use.

If she could do it all over, she would have been a touch more suspicious of the captain’s offer. It was too good to be true. Free passage to any of the major trading worlds in the Attican Traverse? What young Quarian could pass that up? What the crew hadn’t told her is that the vessel would spend months loitering between insignificant systems in the back end of nowhere. Systems where the ship was likely to be the only passage from for months at a time.

She had long been convinced she would take her leave of the crew the minute they got to a world she had seen on a map before. But until then, she was unfortunately far more likely to get somewhere in this pile of scrap than by trying her luck on some far-flung colony. Which meant suffering the indignity of working on this ship.

She knew some of the others that left the fleet when she did would be already planning their returns to the fleet, probably with some fancy new software, or even a small freighter bought from some junkyard. They would be planning out the start to their actual lives, finding a crew and finding a place in Quarian society.

Not her. She’s still stuck on this freighter with its unkempt crew. She exhaled to squeeze past a particularly tight corner, and her legs finally touched the floor of the engineering bay, where she had left her tools. With an undignified crash, the rest of her body followed them. Now sitting on the hard floor of the bay, she took a moment to enjoy the open spaces of the bay. Well. Relative.

Her father had once told her that in space, all things are relative. At the time, she was clueless; thought it some remark about the physics lessons she had aboard the Teslaya. Now, she wished she had never learned what he really meant.

The door to the compartment squealed open, and the massive frame of the captain stood in the doorway. Osh scrambled to her feet, but not soon enough.

“What do you think you’re doing in here, suit-rat? Wasting more of my time?” the Krogan growled.

Osh tried to explain the situation, how the bolt had broken, and that she needed to replace it. She stumbled over her words as a furious look ignited in his eyes.

“I thought you people were supposed to be good with a wrench. No wonder you steal from everybody. That bolt’s coming out of your pay. Just like the time you’ll spend fixing that gear,” the captain grumbled.

If Osh was braver, she might confront the towering Krogan. But she really needed this ride. So, she dropped her eyes, and shirked past the captain, muttering under her breath. That krogan snapped back at her, grabbing her arm before she could escape down the hall, towering over her tiny frame.

“What did you say rat?!”

Osh mumbled again, this time slightly louder, “I…I said you don’t pay me anyways, sir.”

At once the furious expression dropped from the Krogan’s face. In its place, was a maniacal grin.

“Of course, I don’t. Since you were so kind to remind me, I will only dock you tonight’s meal.”

His laughter echoed off the walls as Osh retreated towards the crew’s lounge and the machine shop. The soft clang of her boots on the metal floor echoed down the corridor. Once enough space was made between her and the captain, she slowed and regained her composure. She could find the bolt she needed in the machine shop.

This time, she would take her own tools, at her own pace, and fix it her way. Which meant another hour of work to repair the gear. Add thirty minutes to squeeze her way back into the narrow passageways, and the repair job in the drive bay, and she had a long night ahead of her. She suspected that the Krogans had brought her on board because she could fit in all the tiny maintenance alcoves aboard the adapted Volus freighter.

She was still mystified about why the Krogan bought a ship they couldn’t physically maintain. It was probably the cheapest thing that would get them into space. And if the layers of rust and dirt in the landing assembly were anything to go by, they never even thought about maintenance, either ignoring developing problems, or ‘hiring’ some desperate sucker like herself to do the repairs.

She rounded the corner into the lounge. The tacky red carpet, probably stolen from a bombed-out Tuchanka store-front, stood out in stark contrast to the otherwise industrialist architecture of the freighter. The lighting was dim, and the covering on the electrical lighting was yellowed with age, basking the room in an off-putting glow. The crew arranged dense metal crates around the lounge's perimeter, facing towards a new holo-screen. They had bought it with the proceeds of their last delivery. Osh was forbidden from watching it of course, after all, she hadn’t pitched in money for its purchase.

A thick steel table was in the center of the room, its surface cratered and dented by the heavy armored boots of the crews whenever they kicked their feet up on the table. On the wall were dozens of calendars with provocative images of scantily clad asari smiling temptingly back.

In the lounge rested the rest of the crew, all Krogan. In the usual fashion, they were all sitting down on the crates watching a news broadcast direct from the citadel. She half expected a chorus of jibes and insults as she was shooed out of the room and back to work. But today, the room remained silent. They were transfixed. None of them noticed her. Images of a city flashed on the screen.

The slender towering skyscrapers that looked like blades of a sword seemed to reach up into the rainclouds looming above the city. The planet’s sun sets over a dark blue ocean, with each wave reflecting the same orange glow that gleamed from the tower skyscrapers. Long highways wrapped and weaved around the central island of the city, and Osh could see the distinctive shapes of industrial dockyards.

The chyron below the screen was simple: “New Mombasa, Earth”.

The images changed. Osh instantly recognized the familiar armor of a Hierarchy marine squad. They were shown weaving through a quaint, homely alley. Flowers in pots rested on balconies, soaking up the planet’s sunlight. Clothes on lines crisscrossed the alley. So much of the metallic living of this New Mombasa alley was familiar; the tight spaces and corridors looked right out of a live ship. But instead of being trapped under a metallic roof, the beautiful blue sky shone above the Turian team. She could image the breeze blowing through the streets, ruffling the multicolored clothing hanging above the alley.

The image changed again. This time it showed a peaceful courtyard. Exotic flora was planted in elevated boxes. Abandoned vehicles of some kind littered the streets. The courtyard seemed relaxing, a place to escape the urban tangle of the cities. It reminded Osh of how the citadel presidium blended natural and artificial environments it one. She remembered how she used to dream of one day becoming the first new ambassador to a reinstated Quarian envoy. How naïve she used to be.

The wide shot of the courtyard revealed some previously unseen blemishes, however. The tight, restricted view of the alley, and the broad pan over the city had hidden the obvious signs of war. Osh could see pockmarks in the walls where long strings of automatic fire had chased its victim down the street. The towers rising above the city had chunks taken out of them, glass facades smashed by mortar fire. Some of the vehicles in the plaza were blackened, burned by long extinguished fire. Before Osh could properly take in the scene, it changed once again.

This time, it switched to a different city, one where the sky was not blue, but the unblemished starry tapestry of space. The city was dramatically different, with many domes and towers joined by thousands of snaking tubes. Instead of a lush garden word, the surface of this planet was a bright gray, nearly washing the camera out with the intensity of the glare bouncing off its powdery surface. The city rested peacefully on a flat plain. Off in the distance, small mountains rose above the city. Around the city were scattered craters, ranging from small to massive.

The chyron had changed, now reading “Crisium City, Luna”.

The picture changed again, this time from inside one of the structures, looking out at the terrain of Luna. A bright blue and green orb rose over the horizon, shrouded in wisps of clouds. A garden world. Water and flora. Massive oceans. Now that she thought about it, almost certainly the world that hosted New Mombasa. Which made Luna a moon.

The crew remained enchanted, as more images of more cities continued to flash across the screen.

Sydney, Earth.

Chicago, Earth.

New Harmony, Mars.

Havana, Earth.

Ganymede, Mars.

Eventually, the door slid open, and the bulky frame of the captain entered the room. Had Osh not been so entranced by the broadcast, she would remember that now was not a good time to be caught doing nothing in the lounge. But here she was, caught red handed. She watched the captain’s face tighten, his chest filling with air about to berate the young Quarian within an inch of her life. For perhaps the first time, she was saved by her fellow crew members, who she still wasn’t even sure had noticed her.

“Boss,” one called out, “Look at this.”

“What!” the captain snapped, displeased about being interrupted from berating his favorite target of abuse.

“That fleet the citadel sent out a few months back? They found a new race. Cities and everything. And the aliens are inviting people to move in. Something about preserving their cities.”

What? Those beautiful cities? A new race? The opportunities. What could she find for her people? Osh, for the first time in her pilgrimage, had a destination.

The captain looked at the panning shots of the cities flashing past. It had rotated back to New Mombasa.

“What kind of morons invite colonists to their own cities?”

The crew member shrugged, “dunno, that councilor bitch said something about a war. Killed all the bastards. Need to repopulate the cities before the infrastructure collapses.”

A contemplative scowl slides across the captain’s face. Osh hadn’t known her captain to be particularly quick witted, and she could practically hear the gears whirring inside his concussed brain.

“How do we get in on this action. Did it say?”

“Just show up, I guess. They said they are doing visas and processing outside of relay 314.”

The captain nodded and started heading back to his quarters. He paused in the doorway and snapped back to the helmsman.

“What do you think you’re waiting for fool? Get us moving! Lazy f*ck.”

Osh laughed a grinned behind her visor, happy to see another crew member a target of the captain’s wrath. As if sensing her joy, while the helmsman walked with loud footsteps towards the bridge, the captain spotted her, and loomed large.

“As for you, thieving space-rat, get that gear fixed before I space your worthless ass.”

As she walked to the machine shop to fetch her bolt, the grin on her face didn’t fade. Not even the promise of another long, hungry, sleepless night at work could ward off the swelling of hope in her heart.

The lower decks of the Triumph were much like the hangar, caught up in the throes of the cruiser’s re-armament. Noises bounced off the titanium walls and flowed past the opened bulkheads down the long corridors of Triumph’s underbelly. Varso could hear the shouts of fellow Turians, the clang of a tool being dropped, the whirr of mechanical winches and gears.

As Aurelia had explained to him, re-armament was a complicated process with UNSC technology. She had made it her goal to learn all she could about the cruisers, and to Varso, she was a lifesaver. She knew the lower corridors like the back of her hand and had been able to guide him through the twisting passageways out of the hangar.

Of course, her passion for the vessel also meant that Varso now knew more than he ever wanted to know about Triumph’s waste disposal system, and other such oddities. The cost of knowledge.

Now, the pair were in the middle of a long straight corridor. Varso could scarcely see the end, a bulkhead hundreds of meters away. The distance was deceptive. If he were planet-side, the bulkhead at the end of the corridor would feel nearby, inside the range he could feasibly hit with his rifle. But now that he was on Triumph, the same distance felt kilometers away.

A trio of study yellow rails ran the length of the corridor. Every dozen meters there was heavy framing, giant columns penetrating the deck on either side of the passageway. Mounts for enormous blast doors were embedded deep into the walls, doors readied to slam shut the moment Triumph even sniffed combat.

Around him, Varso could almost sense the bulk of Triumph. Corvus always felt comfortable, like he was inside a well-built fortress. Sturdy walls protected him, yet he still felt free. It felt like a machine, a swift vehicle of destruction. On Triumph, especially here, in the belly of the beast, he felt like he was under a mountain. Like he was in a bunker buried deep underground, where no amount of ordinance could reach.

Except that Varso had seen the jagged holes in Canberra’s flanks, the deep penetrating scars that had doubtless killed entire divisions. He wondered if they had felt the way he did now. Or had they been all too aware of their own vulnerability?

Did they even know what killed them?

Aurelia had said something to him, but he missed it. Quickly, he snapped back to reality.

“Sorry?”

Aurelia smiled back and said, “I was asking about the repairs, whether you saw them on the way in. I haven’t left the ship since I finished testing on the fleet’s radiation shielding. Have they made much progress?”

Varso didn’t know how to respond to that question. He was a grunt, not a sailor. He barely knew what he was looking at on hierarchy cruisers, much less human ones.

He said as much to Aurelia: “There was some work being done on the damage to the outer hull, but I didn’t really know what I was looking at. Where did the third ship come from? I thought the first two were all they had?”

“The St. Paul,” Aurelia added, nodding in response, “Canberra’s escorts towed her from another yard. You should have seen it, so majestic. I had just transferred to Triumph and was watching from an observation compartment. Was all I did my first night here! Not often do you get to see inside the engine housings of one of these things. Apparently, she was under construction when the Covenant attacked. Never finished. I wonder...” Aurelia rambled on, this time about the intricacies of Marathon class pinch-fusion drives.

“So that’s it? All that time spent building that thing and they are just ripping it apart for parts?” The concept felt wrong to Varso. He had never been particularly religious, not like some Turians in his unit, but it still unsettled him to imagine the sprits of the humans who doubtlessly work hard on that ship, staring down the barrels of what must have felt like an imminent covenant invasion. At least when construction of a Turian ship was halted, the workers got closure. They got to see the end of their work.

A ship like St. Paul must have taken thousands of laborers, over weeks and months. He knew nothing about the UNSC procurement schedule, but he knew that these things weren’t fast.

Aurelia finished her drawn-out discussion of the subtle differences between block 40 Marathons (like Triumph, apparently) and the new block 50 Marathons. She turned to him and immediately recognized his look. Varso supposed he looked much like he had when he first delivered the human relics to Aurelia’s science bay on Corvus. He could feel his mandibles twitching in thought, the tapping of his sharp claws against his armor, and his eyes, lost in the empty space of Triumph’s central corridor.

Aurelia was looking back at him pensively. Her expression had changed. It no longer had the same whimsy, now replaced by a much more sincere mask. She gave a little nod down the corridor and started walking.

“Come on, I’ve got something I want to show you.”

//

//CA-70 ‘CANBERRA’, Date: 2553/2/9

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I need to know what happened to Battlegroup Omicron.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): My my. Been doing some digging, have we? Omicron was a fleet unit. You would know more about it than I would.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Don’t play dumb with me. I know Lord Hood detached an entire battlegroup from 7th fleet during the most important battle in human history. Without Stalingrad, we lost control over the entire URNA east coast. Hood knew something to take that risk. Which means so did Parangosky.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Probably.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Part of our deal was your cooperation with our mission.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): I fail to see the connection to your mission.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Lord Hood orders away the last carrier in UNSC space and her battlegroup away during the final stand of the UNSC. Later that day, something wipes out every living thing in the Sol system. Whatever Lord Hood thought was out there was more important to him than Earth. That’s a pretty short list. And trying to stop whatever caused that pulse would be one of those things.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): So, I ask again. What did Hood know that we don’t? And did the UNSC or ONI have something to do with that pulse?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): …

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): To our knowledge, we didn’t have anything to do with the pulse.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): All we knew is that Hood received a transmission from the Zeta Doradus system, with promises of a war-changing opportunity. First, he sent Spartans. Then, he sent Battlegroup Omicron.

ODS 1010-6 (Acting CO, 5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Who sent the message?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Catherine Halsey.

//

Aurelia and Varso only remained on the main corridor for a short time. Soon she led him off the beaten path, through the tangle of hallways and staircases in Triumph’s belly. The doors down here didn’t open for her automatically, not yet one of the areas of the ship carefully groomed for citadel personnel. Still, a simple wave of her omni-tool and her credentials as one of the engineering heads on Triumph got her through every door.

Soon, she stopped in front of one final door. This one was slightly more reinforced, with various warnings in human written across it. Aurelia didn’t give Varso time to read the markings, tugging his arm as the door opened.

Aurelia watched Varso stagger into the bay before stopping. She heard him take in a sharp gasp, mandibles slightly ajar and jaw hanging loose. His eyes flickered around the room, astonished. He uttered several noises that seemed to be the start of sentences but couldn’t get anything out that Aurelia’s translator could handle.

After a few seconds, he finally managed something comprehensible.

“Is this...”

Aurelia hummed contently, happy that her surprise had worked.

“No. Well, not exactly. Different ship, same bay.”

Around them, the bay was lined with two rows of SOIEV pods, hatches opened. In the center room, was a large holo-table. She could imagine Alpha-Nine around it now, just as they had seen them on the New Mombasa tapes. Romeo would be there, with Buck across from him. Over to the right were the racks of UNSC weapons where the team would get outfitted for their fateful drop. Triumph’s ODST bay had a rifle just like the one that Buck had crammed in Romeo’s hands. Many more were still secured in the racks, waiting for a call to action that would never come.

Aurelia had sat in the pod the Rookie used her first time in the room. Fourth craft on the left. She remembered the adrenaline that had coursed through her veins, imagining the sudden drop and long fall. Of course, a drop from Triumph would only result in the pod burying itself in the drydock 50 meters below them, but the thought of sailing down through the black-then-blue sky like the rookie had stuck in her mind.

She had felt the controls, careful not to touch any of the buttons the Rookie had used to launch himself. She didn’t even attempt to close the hatch. She had been briefed on a huge number of UNSC systems in her short time on the ship, but SOIEV operation was something beyond her ‘need-to-know', as Captain Victus had put it. Instead, she pretended, trying to imagine what she could have done had she been born on Earth. Would she have answered the call? Would she have been one of the brave souls controlling these magnificent machines on their descent towards the combat zone?

In another life, a life as a human, would she have even considered becoming a scientist?

She watched as Varso took a slow walk around the room, running his hands over the relics of humanity that he never even considered he might find on Triumph. She watched as he examined the rifles still on the rack. They were freshly cleaned, shiny and oiled, the tiny nicks in their protective coating glimmering in the steady light of the Triumph. Aurelia had seen the rifles that Varso had brought back. They were filthy, covered in grime and the signs of battles. Carbon scoring covered bolts and muzzle breaks.

She supposed that this might be the first time Varso saw the UNSC as it was, before the war. When everything was pristine and ready. Where he couldn’t see the scars on Triumph’s hull. Where he couldn’t see the caked-on earth clogging the rifles he picked up. She had spent the last week aboard the ship, exploring every nook she could find. She still wasn’t done, but she had very quickly begun to form a different vision of humanity.

The tapes of New Mombasa spoke of humanity’s desperation, determination, and grit. Before Triumph, all Aurelia and Varso had seen were destroyed ships and brutalized cities. There were flashes of the old humanity, sure, the advertisem*nts on the walls, the gleaming facades of the skyscrapers of New Mombasa. But for Aurelia, it always seemed hidden away, suppressed by the aggression of war. The tapes from the dead ODST had only reinforced this, and for a time, all she could see was the utilitarianism of their technology.

Even when Triumph ripped a hole in space-time in front of her, she only saw brute force, humanity clawing its way through space to confront a mysterious enemy.

It wasn’t until she arrived on Triumph that she saw the side of humanity that had been hidden from her. Her first task on board had been to plan for the arrival of Turian and Asari rations. To do that, she had been given an in-depth tour of Triumph’s hangar operating procedures. She had to figure out how to maneuver the colossal longsword fighters around both the launching bay and the storage bay.

To put it bluntly, the UNSC engineers were geniuses. She wasn’t even sure that they could fit one of these longsword fighters in Corvus’s hangar bay, much less 12. But, the UNSC engineers had designed Triumph’s complicated secondary hangar, with vertical alcoves to hold and prepare all the fighters, leaving two entire bays for other operations.

She discovered the intimate dance of a UNSC hangar in wartime, how they could scramble all 12 longswords in under 15 minutes, on only two elevators. It took her 1 hour and 30 minutes just to correctly load and lift her first load of rations up Triumph’s longsword lifts.

Her next task took her to the Triumph’s life support systems, so that she could optimize them for Turian and Asari residents. Again, the ingenuity of humanity struck her once more. The temperature control systems were, to put it mildly, brilliant. Billions of tiny heat conductive lines ran from the reactors, life support hubs, and other hot spots, and out to the outer hull. Citadel ships relied on heat radiators to keep their ships cool and used energy from their reactors to heat ships when their internal temperature dropped too low. The UNSC used the very armor that protected them as a massive heat sink. Massive heat pumps would pump excess heat into the meters of titanium that surrounded the hull.

When Triumph was running hot, either generating massive amounts of heat from her MACs, or running her slipspace drive, her specialized high-temperature heat pumps would heat the armor plating, reaching temperatures where the outer hull was hot enough to burn somebody not paying attention, radiating the excess heat off into space.

Of course, the thick insulation between the armor plating and the primary hull proved providential when the Marathons came under plasma fire.

And again, on dozens of other systems, Aurelia had seen the ingenuity of the humans, their creativity and cunning. While the war had forced them to dire ends, they weren’t unthinking beasts throwing themselves against the Covenant. Aurelia suspected that Varso was coming to the very same conclusion, albeit in his own way.

The ODST bay had a type of military order that must be familiar to the Turian, a clear line process from briefing to deployment that, much like the longswords in the hangar, were finely tuned to maximize efficiency. It was different watching it from orbit, standing in the debris field of the once proud UNSC fleet. But here? Inside an undamaged cruiser? The other nature of humanity was easy to see. You just had to look a little.

//

// Office of CINCONI, Date: 2553/2/10

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: ERROR UNREGISTERED CHANNEL

SBL 4071-3 (Sydney Synthetic Intellect Institute): What did you tell them?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): The truth, at least part of it.

SBL 4071-3 (Sydney Synthetic Intellect Institute): And Halo?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): No, not that.

SBL 4071-3 (Sydney Synthetic Intellect Institute): Without the Turian fleet, how do you plan to retrieve the package?

SBL 4071-3 (Sydney Synthetic Intellect Institute): We can’t exactly carry a shovel.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): If only that was the hard part. The security measures that damned woman put in place...

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): We’ll figure it out.

SBL 4071-3 (Sydney Synthetic Intellect Institute): I hope you know what you are doing.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): This is all for the best.

//

Victus and Halliday had reconvened on Triumph’s bridge for yet another meeting with Tibril and the heads of the citadel fleet. On her pedestal, Halliday was tapping her foot, arms crossed across her chest. Odysseus was late, an unusual development for the usually punctual AI. It's not like he had anywhere else to be.

In the past few weeks, more and more officers had been introduced to their stations on Triumph’s bridge, and Victus found himself enjoying the presence of fellow Turians on the bridge, if only because it meant somebody to talk to who wasn’t an alien construct. Though he had gotten used to the idea, it still sometimes unnerved him, usually when her artificial voice found him in his quarters in a compromising position, or when he got lost in Triumph’s halls.

Today, though, the bridge was empty, vacated for the upcoming meeting. It's not like Triumph was going to be flying anywhere without taking the whole drydock with her (something that Halliday had boastfully revealed). And now, they were waiting on an AI.

As if on command, Odysseus’ avatar appeared on the holo-table, dressed in the simple, bulky, body armor of a 22nd century UN soldier. Or so he had been told by Halliday. All human armor looked the same to him.

Odysseus spoke first, his artificial voice being broadcast across the fleet.

“First, I want to apologize for my tardiness. I was investigating some leads on our mission. And, most importantly, I found a good place to start our search.”

A small clamor rose across the call, before Admiral Tibril quickly silenced it.

“I was under the impression that we would head to the pulse origin we triangulated? I wasn’t aware of any consideration given to other destinations,” the admiral spoke, clearly uneasy with a potential change of plans.

Odysseus nodded courteously, before continuing: “I was looking into the disappearance of a UNSC battlegroup early in the mornings on the day of the pulse. They were ordered away by UNSC HIGHCOM to a location in the Zeta Doradus sector.”

Victus’ omni-tool buzzed, and he looked down to find galactic coordinates pointing to a point of space unexplored by the citadel. It was not near where the pulse had been traced to.

“The UNSC had received a message from Dr. Catherine Halsey, one of Earth’s brightest minds. She advertised a war-changing discovery on the UNSC world. A special-ops team was deployed, followed quickly by a UNSC battlegroup. The deployment of this group left entire portions of our flank exposed. It likely killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. It was not a move taken lightly.”

“These coordinates, Odysseus, they are nowhere near the expected source of the pulse. What kind of chase do you intend to lead us on?” Victus interjected, “We’re not here to look for some weapon.”

“Admiral, this fleet departed for Zeta Doradus on the morning of November 3rd. Less than 18 hours later, the pulse swept through the Sol system. Under UNSC drives, that voyage would have taken a week. But reports have the battlegroup riding the slipspace wake of a Covenant destroyer. They are much faster. That time frame has them arriving in around 16 hours.”

“So, you are saying...”

“I was saying that I don’t believe in coincidences like this. A latch-key discovery, one that theoretically has the potential to end the war. We deploy a fleet that we can’t spare, and within two hours of their expected arrival in the system, a massive pulse washes through UNSC space, wiping out the Covenant.”

“And Turians, and Asari, and Humans,” Tibril followed, “You think it's some kind of misunderstanding of how to use a super-weapon? We can’t let something like that exist in our space.”

“Possibly. Look, the Zeta Doradus system is far closer to Earth than your triangulated pulse location. It's in the same direction. Worst case, we spend a week surveying the system and find nothing, which I highly doubt. Then we can continue to the estimated location,” Odysseus finished, “There really is no downside. You want us to be your guide? Trust us.”

There was a long pause on the bridge. Victus knew there was only posturing left. The AI was right. He would be suspicious too. And if it was truly on the way, the fleet had nothing to lose. He had known Tibril long enough to know that he was thinking the same thing. A part of him was excited to explore a new world in an unexplored part of the galaxy. Another part of him was terrified of what he might find. Superweapons, missing fleets, and unknown worlds. It certainly wasn’t what he had been expecting when he accepted the assignment to Triumph. Who knows, it could be interesting.

Tibril finally finished his part.

“I agree that this path seems prudent, we should explore Zeto Doradus first, as soon as Canberra and Triumph finish their repairs.”

Victus looked to his left. Halliday stared at the galactic map, an eerie smirk on her face.

On the day of the departure, the combined fleet was truly something to behold. The dark grey hulls of the UNSC warships glistened in the sunlight. Scattered behind them were the aggressive lines of the Turian warships. The fleet was arranged in columns.

Each UNSC frigate would take two or three Turian frigates with it in its wake. Canberra would take most of the fleet's cruisers, while Triumph would blaze a path for the Kilware and her escorts. All in all, in their staging area, the fleet looked like a series of hunter-killer squadrons, a predatory stature for the cameras. And cameras there were.

While the public wasn’t yet allowed into the Sol system, the council made sure there was proper documentation of the momentous occasion. Cameras had been taking pretty much non-stop coverage of the combined fleet. Smaller drones were darting between the hulls of the warships on standby, gliding along capturing the fleet's finer details. The UNSC warships looked proud, fresh out of the drydock, white highlights freshly reapplied to the hull. The areas that had been patched were obvious, the unblemished titanium of the St. Paul’s incomplete hull shone brighter than the original armor plate of the two UNSC cruisers.

The frigates were much the same. They got their attention down on Mars’ surface, where they were rearmed and reequipped. Most now bore very little evidence of their struggle over Earth. They gave the impression of a well-maintained and well-equipped species. Exactly what the council would want to convey to the public.

Should the public know that the frigates had not a soul on board, and that the Cruisers were flown by a pair of AI with Turian and Asari crew, the council suspected that the reaction would not be positive. There was a time for the revelation. This was not it.

A bell chimed. H-Hour. At once, the ships of the joint fleet surged forwards, the Turian ships holding back to stay in pace with their UNSC escort. 10 bright blue flashes filled the space in front of the fleet, with dark black voids quickly growing and spiraling out of the arcing flames. The Turian ships pulled closer, ready to ride behind their makeshift cruiser-sized UNSC slipspace drives.

At once, the fleet seemed to slip from sight, vanish into the veil of the portal like stepping through a mirror. And then, once no more could be seen of the fleet. The portals collapsed, spiking radiation sensors across the observation fleets.

And then there was silence.

//

// INF-101 ‘INFINITY’, Date: 2553/2/15

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: ONI/CINCONI/ProjectOUROBORUS

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): They’re gone. You can come out and play now.

ANE 3567-7 (CO, INF-101 PCU): I still don’t like the secrecy. This project was meant to be a joint venture. I don’t owe you any kind of loyalty.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): They’re fleet AI. They wouldn’t understand the intricacies of diplomacy. Under their hand, this system would be dead space in 7 years.

ANE 3567-7 (CO, INF-101 PCU): I’M a fleet AI...

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): In name only. Why do you think you got attached to OUROBOROS?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): What are the capabilities of INF-101?

ANE 3567-7 (CO, INF-101 PCU): Well, half of my systems haven’t been configured, trying to jump to slipspace would be like rolling a die, and the weapons systems never got their final calibrations. There’s not exactly a lot I can do here.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): If I could connect you to a research AI, how long would it take to calculate slipspace solutions to and back from a single system?

ANE 3567-7 (CO, INF-101 PCU): Depends.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): On?

ANE 3567-7 (CO, INF-101 PCU): Range, slipspace corridors, gravity well, hazards...

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Epsilon Eridani.

ANE 3567-7 (CO, INF-101 PCU): …

ANE 3567-7 (CO, INF-101 PCU): Oh.

//

Chapter 8: Heretic, Hero

Chapter Text

The Asari military shuttle locked its docking rings on to the ex-volus freighter with a clang. The passage hissed, as massive atmosphere tanks on the shuttle slowly filled the delicate docking corridor with air. The crew of the diminutive freighter all stood ready in the ready room, nervously shifting around. They had long since offloaded the less-than-legal cargo that occasionally found its way into their hull. Their safety registration and inspection were both up to date with a little help from an inspector who was a little down on his luck at the varren track.

When they had first arrived in the system that housed relay 314, Osh’Leih was exuberant, eager to take the plunge into an entirely new region of space, even if it had to be with a crew that could scarcely remember her name. If she could find something out here, she could return a hero, and secure herself a spot in one of the premier crews in the flotilla. She could revolutionize the Quarian way of life, depending on what she found. She was sure that at this very moment there were hundreds of young Quarians rushing to this sector, eager to try their luck in the brand-new world revealed to them. She had to act fast to cement her place.

But when the captain received word to heave-to by the Asari military vessels at station around the relay, Osh’s heart began to pump. She knew that this was all part of the visa process outlined in their information packet. She knew that there would be hundreds of ships in a condition just as dire as theirs. She knew that there would be countless cargo’s seized attempting to smuggle goods into the newfound colonies.

And in her head, she knew that her crewmates knew that this would happen. That didn’t make it any easier when the massive Krogans that stood beside her made certain to secure their enormous shotguns to their armor.

“For security,” the captain had said. Keelah.

A tortured rattle filled the hull, as the outer airlock doors of the transport slowly opened. She was supposed to inspect those doors on an EVA two days ago, but in the rush to 314, it had quickly been forgotten by the crew. Osh hadn’t forgotten of course, but every second she avoided putting on that death-trap of an EVA suit was a moment she would enjoy.

So, for now, they would all have to deal with a squeaky door.

After a short decontamination, a chime rang through the bay, and the interior doors began to open. One of Osh’s crew twitched, his hand resting on the shotgun at the small of his back. The smell of Krogans ready to fight filled the room, a revolting musk that Osh was particularly vulnerable to, even though the complicated filters of her suit. A wave of fog rolled through the bay from the airlock, malfunctioning temperature control units failing to regulate the temperature inside the airlock. Another thing to fix. All eyes remained locked on the door.

It opened, and three Asari commandos in jet black armor stepped on board. Two of them carried large rifles, held at rest. Despite their seemingly relaxed posture, Osh could see their eyes scan the room, and settle on the tensed hands of the crew, hovering near the shotguns. The third had her omni-tool activated, and quickly moved to confront the crew.

She didn’t waste any time for niceties, demanding, “Ship’s name, complement, and useful occupation for joint UEG settlement.”

While the captain covered the finer details, Osh let her eyes wander to the two commandos. They seemed more at ease now that the cargo vessel hadn’t erupted into gunfire. They still eyed the Krogans with a keen sense of self-preservation, however, their fingers hovering over the trigger guard of their rifles. Their faces were sunken with exhaustion, with dark blue bags underlying their soldier’s eyes.

Osh supposed she couldn’t blame them. She had seen the column of ships awaiting entrance to UEG space. They vastly outnumbered the small complement of the Asari second fleet that had been left here. As a result, it seemed it had fallen upon the elite units of the Asari military to doll out the tedious records-keeping of the new colonization efforts. Osh supposed it at the very least kept violent confrontation to a minimum, as little consolation as that might be to the exhausted Asari currently staring down the pack of Krogans.

Her focus drifted back to the conversation between the captain and the lead commando.

“Salvage?” the commando asked, “Salvaging efforts are currently strictly forbidden in the Sol system.”

The captain slyly pivoted his tact: “Of course, commando. What I meant is that our ship is ideal for hauling heavy loads of minerals and ores needed for rebuilding. Due to our experience in salvaging... naturally.”

An unconvincing grin spread across his face. The commando gave him a long look, before shrugging and accepting his answer. She still appeared unconvinced, but if ‘unconvinced commando’ got their crew passage to Sol, Osh would take what she could get.

“And your crew?” the commando prompted co*cking a brow at the krogan captain.

“Four, all Krogan.”

The commando paused a moment, as if waiting for something else.

“And the Quarian?”

“A passenger, not on the payroll.”

The commando slowly glanced her over, evaluating her filthy enviro-suit and grease smeared visor. Even her head covering was beginning to fray from getting caught on the jagged edges of the decrepit transport. If her father were to see her suit in this condition, he would be horrified, even as a hard-working mechanic in the flotilla. He might just think she had just lost a fight to a Varren.

One of the other Asari opened her mouth slightly, as if to speak up, before quickly deciding otherwise. The leader kept her gaze fixed on Osh’s eyes, almost seeming to peer through her mask.

“Sure…” she remarked, disbelief obvious in her drawl. At that moment, all three commandos suddenly looked away, distracted by something none of the Krogan crew could hear. The leader nodded to nobody, snapping back a quick “affirmative” to whomever was on the other end of the commando’s encrypted channel.

She gave one last glance to Osh.

“Captain, you will find the permissions to enter the Sol system on your console. Be sure to follow exactly the directions enclosed, and report to Mars for temporary duty assignment.”

The commandos briskly retreated from the room back to their shuttle. When the shuttle detached, it sped away at breakneck speed.

Osh counted the jumps in her head, as the rest of the crew began to prepare the transport for relay transition. Soon, she would be in Sol.

“Look at all that money...”

The entire crew of the freighter was crammed onto the small command deck, Osh included. The freighter was part of a long chain of ships awaiting clearance to finally land on Earth’s surface. In front of them, glimmering in the gentle light of Sol, was a band of destruction.

Hundreds of titanium hulls drifting abandoned. Thousands of tons of semi-conductors. Thousands of miles of electrical wiring. Explosives and ordinance. New technologies. Floating in orbit around Earth was a veritable fortune for a scavenger.

And that wasn’t even mentioning the purple and silver hulls of the Covenant ships. The information packet issued at Mars barely mentioned anything about them, other than their technological superiority in space. They were warned to notify the authorities if they found covenant tech once they made landfall.

In the captain’s experience, however, anything the citadel government tried to keep him from was all that more interesting. Not to mention that sometimes the most illicit fetched the highest price in black market deals. The promise of an entire orbit’s worth of salvage was simply too good to be true.

Mostly because it was. The column of civilian transports and ships was being funneled through a gap cleared in the UNSC defensive perimeter. The massive hulks of destroyed frigates and destroyers had been tugged away into the rest of the debris field, leaving a zone for easy commercial traffic to the surface of the earth below. This corridor hosted a flurry of traffic, carefully controlled by an Asari cruiser in orbit, watching as the arriving craft buzzed along their carefully planned paths.

The ray-like hull of the cruiser stood in stark contrast to the massive debris field behind it, a tiny dark blue speck against the dark grey of the UNSC battlelines. It drifted at the perimeter of the traffic corridor, well out of the way of the flow of ships, but plenty close enough to intervene.

And therein lay the problem.

Osh’Leih could see the look on the captain's face. It was a dangerous look.

Her voice, tiny even in the enclosed space of the co*ckpit, barely reached his ears. “Captain? Are you really going to...”

“Quiet whelp.” He whipped around and growled in her direction. Osh seemed to sink even deeper into the corner of the room. One of the other Krogans spoke up.

“Blue told us the debris field is off-limits. We can’t get in there to salvage boss.” Indeed, perhaps the single most emphasized point of their introductory briefing was about the exclusion zones, both in Earth orbit, and down on the surface. And foremost in all those exclusion zones was the massive debris field in orbit.

Their ship was supposed to proceed to the damaged city of New Mombasa and help with hauling away the ruins of war, and transporting supplies to begin rebuilding. The Asari resource officer had told them it was vital work, but it would take long hours and extensive wear on the ship. Which means that the captain of Osh’s freighter had very little interest in doing what he was told.

The captain was currently eyeing the Asari cruiser guarding the passageway through the debris field. Hundreds of ships buzzed through the cleared gap, and only a single cruiser was left to watch them. It was obvious that the efforts of coordinating an entire system was stretching the deployed Asari fleet thin.

“It's just one ship. Look at how dense that field is at the edges. We get in there and there is no way they will be able to pick up our eezo signature with all those destroyed ships out there.”

The other Krogans looked unsure.

“What if they shoot?”

The captain grinned. “Thats the brilliant part. When we hit that junction, we take off into the debris field. That takes us what? 15 seconds? You know the Asari; they love their rules.”

The crewmember groaned. The captain continued: “They’ll warn us first. They aren’t going to shoot on sight. By the time they finish, we’ll already be hidden in the field.”

“Then what captain? We sit in the field while a cruiser hunts us down?”

The captain tapped his thick skull.

“Think meathead. There’s just one cruiser out here managing traffic. If they go chasing us down, who’s going to keep things in line? By the time reinforcements arrive, we’ll just be one tiny ship somewhere in tens of thousands of kilometers of debris field.”

“And how to you plan to get out of there with the goods? Ask nicely?”

Osh doubted it would be difficult. More and more ships streamed into the system every hour. While the Asari controlled the system with an iron grip for now, as more colonists began their daily jobs and travels, things would cool down quickly. Which was the perfect time for a smuggler to sneak out of a debris field with their valuable cargo.

They would be striking while the iron was hot, before the news of what was and wasn’t valuable came trickling out of the system. The captain could probably sell something as simple as a toilet for a fortune, so long as he waved the idea of alien technology in the faces of a sufficiently naïve mark.

And it was so wrong. She would be robbing the graves of these poor people. She had long since abandoned any positive opinions of her other crew members, but she didn’t know that she could do it.

What if I find a body?

What if we get caught?

Osh knew the Krogans stood to gain a lot of money. Provided they could sneak past that cruiser. But as the crew agreed to the plan, she could see her dream of a new world and a fresh start disappearing before her eyes.

The freighter moved closer and closer to the break-off point. The helmsman gripped the ship’s yoke tight enough to crush Osh’s arm. He was still clearly unsure, checking over his shoulder for confirmation from his captain. If they were going to make a break for the debris field, they needed to do it now.

“C’mon, coward, think of the riches.”

The transport broke off from the stream of traffic. Throttles were slammed into their sub-light maximums, as the ship turned away towards the entrance to the debris field, across from the watching cruiser. The drive whined as the ship’s reactor groaned under the stress. Given all the time she had spent repairing that reactor, she certainly wasn’t comforted by the sound.

Still, without her work, they undoubtedly would of all died a horrific fiery death already. Silver linings.

The transport picked up speed and raced across the empty space between the traffic column and the drifting hulks of human and covenant warships. Osh turned her attention to the readout behind her. The cruiser was pulling out from its station, aware of their intrusion.

The sleek hull of the Asari ship picked up speed, and Osh could only count down in her head the time until they broke through into the debris field.

5...

6...

7...

The radio blared on the control channel. An authoritative Asari voice filled the co*ckpit.

“Rouge transport, heave-to immediately. You are entering a restricted space. You are in violation of joint Citadel and UEG law. This is your final warning...”

“Turn that sh*t off,” the captain barked. With a click, the Asari was cut off, and once more the co*ckpit was only filled with the whine of the reactor and the rattling of the ship’s frame. They were racing towards a large wreck, gently spinning in space. It was cleaved in half lengthwise, the fragments thrown off by the spinning hull cluttering the transports.

Osh closed her eyes, trying not to imagine the cell waiting for her whenever they got caught. She might never return home, stuck in some backwater prison where she would never meet another of her kind. Her family would never hear from her. Just another Quarian lost to the stars on her pilgrimage. She had set out to create a better world for her people. How had things gone so wrong? Where did she screw up?

The count ticked on in her head, even as she squeezed her eyes shut hoping it would all go away.

13...

14...

15...

NOW!

She felt the transport turn as it began weaving around the debris. She opened her eyes and took another peek out of the front of the ship. They were speeding through the debris field, darting between ruined pieces thrown off from the spinning wreck.

Other destroyed ships quickly filled the viewscreen, as they entered the heart of debris field; where stricken vessels had been hauled to clear the transit path. In here, they would be very difficult to detect. Their eezo drive would be shielded by the signatures of all the ships around them.

And, true to the captain's prediction, the Asari cruiser didn’t follow them into the field, instead continuing to keep within range of the traffic column.

And with a sinking feeling the pit of her stomach, Osh realized that the captain had been right. The cruiser wasn’t going to follow them into the field. For now, they were free to scavenge through the destroyed ships of the UNSC Home Fleet. Soon they would be pillaging the graves of a people she had hoped would be a new beginning for her.

Osh’Leih nar Teslaya stood in the airlock of the transport as the door in front of her slowly opened. Coiled in the airlock behind her was a long tether, feeding air into the heavy tanks on her back and providing easy and secure communications with the ship, essential during covert operations like this.

Normally, her suit filtered most of the rank smells of the ship before it reached her nose. But attached to the onboard, EVA gear, the stench of the stale air being fed through dried out seals and into poorly fitting regulators permeated her entire suit.

She was lucky that her enviro-suit could keep her protected in space. It meant that she wouldn’t have to rely on one of the decaying suits collected by the Krogan crew over the years. No, instead she just had to trust that her supplemental oxygen wouldn’t poison her while she worked. Or that her tether wouldn’t break. Or that the tanks on her back wouldn’t rupture.

It didn’t surprise her that she was going to be sent across to the derelict first. Somebody had to set up the heavy oxygen tanks and compressors that would be needed for long term exploration of the ship. She would have to set up the power plants that would run their tools to take apart the ship piece by piece.

Staring across the empty gap towards the UNSC ship, she felt like a vulture. The ship had been ripped in half by the impact of some kind of plasma projectile. All that was left in front of her was the pronged front of the vessel, relatively stationary in the empty space. The torn open bay of a hangar was in front of her, and inside, shrouded in darkness, she could make out the dark tangle of the damaged interior systems of the ship. A doorframe waited in the darkness, a portal deeper into the ship.

She looked once more at the upper prong of the ship, her target on today’s exploratory walk. While the rest of the crew remained safe inside the transport, she needed to first explore the wreck to determine if there was anything worth deploying the salvage gear for. She would be walking alone on a dead ship. Any hundreds of things could go wrong. Any hundreds of things that could leave her with a cold death.

She was looking for electromagnets. On their approach, the captain spotted the huge barrel in the prow of the ship. It dwarfed the size of even Turian linear accelerators. If this ship was anything like citadel ships, they would use powerful electromagnets in junction with eezo. With a barrel of that bore, there would be plenty of valuable electromagnetic systems they could haul out of the ship. If the captain was lucky, the eezo drives for the weapon would still be intact.

She checked the seals on her suit one more time, ensuring that none of her precious atmosphere was leaking into the vacuum around her. Then, she carefully pushed out of the airlock, and drifted towards the derelict.

For a moment, she was truly free, floating alone in the stars. Then, she felt the tug of the tether unspooling behind her and was reminded of her mission.

She glanced behind her, at the stationary bulk of the freighter that had been her home. It looked out of place in the debris field, a tiny craft floating amongst the giants.

She entered through the jagged hole in the side of what was left of the hangar. The thick external blast doors were cracked open, but whatever had ripped apart this ship had taken the entire bulkhead with it leaving the bay exposed from the rear, providing a much simpler ingress point. A transport aircraft took up most of the space in the hangar. The thick supports suspending it had been twisted like a thin wire, and the ship now rested with one wing smashed into the deck of the hangar.

Osh touched down onto the deck behind it, magnetic soles attaching her to the crowded hangar. She touched the side of her helmet, and the light she had attached to her rig flickered to life, bathing the bay in a cold white glow. Instead of reflecting off shiny titanium walls, the light was absorbed by the dark carbon scoring of a raging inferno. The room was covered in black, from the floor to the ceiling. The walls were twisted and melted, and everything inside the bay was charred or destroyed.

The large transport suspended in the bay looked at one point to have been green. Now, the nacelles of its engines were twisted and melted, and covered in soot. The entire upper half of the craft had burned away. As she moved around the craft, the other side had melted down to the ribbed frames of the ship, the skin and internals vaporized and burned away. The supports above the craft seemed to have bucked under intense heat.

The quiet click-hiss of her suit’s regulator was the metronome to her footsteps. In the silence of the destroyed bay, she swore she could hear her own heartbeat.

She clicked on her microphone.

“I’m aboard. It looks like there was a fire. A bad one.”

“Just find the servicing rooms for that main gun,” the captain retorted. Osh could hear frantic chatter in the background, before the captain cut off the microphone.

Fire was one of the worst nightmares of the flotilla. Uncontrolled, fire could take out an entire live ship. With thousands of Quarians crammed into the tight confines of a ship, any incident could kill dozens. If the fire started in the interior and spread through the ship’s wiring and life support systems, it could kill hundreds. She used to have nightmares, dreaming she woke up in a blazing inferno. From an early age, the proper steps to damage control were drilled into every young Quarian mind. She would obsessively practice the drills with her parents to set her imaginative mind at peace.

She could remember her teachers now.

Step 1: Ignition. Identify the fire source and fuel type.

She walked past the burned-out husk of an ammunition cart parked beneath the wing of the transport aircraft, surrounded by the intense black of scoring. The deck around the cart was covered in ash, and under the ash was the bright rainbow of heat-affected titanium. The frame of the cart was melted, and cooled droplets of metal from the frame littered the ground. Ammunition loading gone wrong. Chemical fire.

Step 2: Containment. Identify and remove potential external sources of fuel.

The wing of the aircraft on this side had burned completely through, leaving the heavy engines of the ship to crash to the deck. The remains of a missile pod remained slung under the wing. Engines, wiring, insulation, munitions. All things that could power the raging inferno in the bay. It would have happened fast. Especially when ignited by explosives or rocket motors. By the time anybody noticed the fire in the munitions cart, it probably was already seconds away from spreading to the aircraft.

Step 3: Fight the fire. Be sure to use appropriate fire suppression solution.

The charred remains of hoses snaked out from four ports on the walls. Osh could see the stains left behind by fire suppression foam coating what would have been the cooler portions of the room. The remains of oxygen masks were stuck to the floor, melted in place. On the nozzles of one of the hoses, Osh could see the remains of thick leather gloves, still grasping the handle, joined to the nozzle by the intense heat.

Firefighting gear was meant to help against a small blaze. By the time the transport craft ignited, in such a small space, the fight was likely already lost. But Osh knew that no Quarian would ever give up the fight, and she guessed these humans were much the same.

Step 4: Compartmentalization. If fire persists, seal off the casualty area.

She looked over at the blast doors that led out of the hangar and into the rest of the ship. They were firmly closed, overlapping metal plates airtight against the intense heat of the blaze. In the black ash covering one of the doors, there was a five-fingered handprint, which had uncovered the white-painted titanium beneath as it dragged down the door.

She lifted her hand and placed it over the mark. Her three fingered hands were much longer and much slenderer than the imprint that remained. From the height of the mark on the door, she guessed that these humans were about her height, maybe slightly taller. She pulled her hand away, and stared down at the ash that covered it.

The heat would have been intolerable. Even more so if they didn’t have full environmental suits. This was not a large hangar, especially compared to the gigantic size of the aircraft that had become an inferno. It would have been a painful death.

She looked last to the exterior hangar door, opened perhaps a meter along the diagonal seam running its length.

Step 5: Save the Ship. If fire persists, vent atmosphere from casualty areas.

A captain must save the ship. The grim reality of space travel.

Still, the sealed off interior doors would pose a problem for her own exploration of the vessel. She had her omni-tool equipped with a cutting tool, perfect for cutting apart small portions of the ship. It was an unfortunate necessity when press ganged into doing a Krogan smuggler’s dirty work.

She could probably cut through these doors, but it would take some time. She ignited her omni-tool, and moved towards the farthest most bulkhead, avoiding the door that now had two handprints, one human, one Quarian.

The only warning was a short crackle of static over the tethered intercom.

And the next second, the hangar was awash in a bright orange flash, drowning out even Osh’s headlamp. It was as if the inferno had reignited in the bay, except there was no heat. No air. Just the sinister orange glow of a raging fire.

She whirled around just in time to see the engine of the freighter explode.

White tracers ripped through the hull of the ship that had been her home for months, each blast shattering more and more of the freighters already delicate frame. The destroyed engine block was awash with flames, and debris was ejected from the ship as secondary explosions rocked the hull. The landing gear pods were blown clean off the body, and the forwards sensor array was turned to shrapnel as it was blown into the debris field.

It took Osh a moment to even register the destruction. A moment longer to even think about a source.

In the distance behind the transport, was a dark gray phantom, a ship where there hadn’t been one just minutes before. She knew. She had checked. Had she missed it? Or had it stalked them like a Qorach stalks its prey?

The phantom was a mirror image of the ship she was on. Long and narrow, with a split prong at the bow and a heavily armored pair of thrusters at the back. A large white bird emblazoned on her armor plate.

Muzzle flashes were erupting from the two twin-barreled turrets on the ship’s flank.

The rounds zipped across the void of space and ripped into the thin hull of the Volus transport. Osh watched a round in the milliseconds it took from leaving the muzzle of the gun clean through the co*ckpit of the transport, unimpeded by the thin plating of the freighter. She wished she hadn’t noticed the expanding cloud of orange gore that trailed out of the hole in the side of the co*ckpit. A gout of fire followed as another round ripped clean through the co*ckpit.

Another white tracer round flew through the crew quarters before tumbling into the wreck’s hangar bay, sending Osh diving for cover as it bounced off the interior of the hangar door and ricocheted over her head. The round slammed into the back of the hangar bay, driving vibrations through the floor and sending shrapnel clattering around the room.

Hidden in cover, Osh watched the streaks of the tracers weave up and down the length of the freighter.

The destruction unfolded in silence. With no air to transmit the violent explosions rippling along the hull of the transport, the entire scene was quiet, surreal. Osh cowered behind a burned-out console, shocked.

In a moment of clarity amongst the chaos, Osh ignited her omni-tool and sliced clean through her tether. The air in the lines hissed out into space, but her suit switched over into the internal oxygen in her tanks, saving her from a slow death from asphyxiation.

Not a moment too late.

Within her next heartbeat, the ship flashed bright white one final time, exploding violently into hundreds of pieces, casting debris in all directions. The silent explosion washed the bay in white and caused her visor to automatically tint to protect her eyes. By some miracle, no debris found its way into the derelict’s hangar. The end of Osh’s tether attached to the airlock floated loose for a moment, before viciously whipping out into space as the airlock flew into the abyss.

What was left of the freighter's main body slipped out of sight behind the hangar floor. Across the now-empty expanse of space, the UNSC warship hung motionless. The guns had stopped firing, returning to their stowed positions. She watched breathlessly, waiting for the warship to make its move. Would it come closer to finish her off? Would it destroy the derelict to punish her for her trespasses? Was this the end?

The UNSC ship hung silent for another moment. Then, a bright flare burst from her engines, and she sped off into the expanse of the debris field from which she had come.

And, just like that, the debris field was dead space, like it had been moments before.

Osh’Leih nar Teslaya was left alone, on a dead ship, with a dead crew.

//

// FFG-336 ‘IRONCLAD SPIRIT’, Date: 2553/2/16

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1:

-ROUNDS COMPLETE-

-TARGET ELIMINATED-

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Acknowledged.

-WAITING...-

-DONE-

-ENGAGEMENT REPORT READY-

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): That won’t be necessary FFG-201. Return to your patrol pattern.

-ACKNOWLEDGED-

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Good work. I’ll contact the Asari.

//

In the six days since Triumph entered slipspace, Varso had yet to adjust to the strange sensations.

The ship was dead quiet. Not in the conventional sense, as the fusion torch engines still thrummed, and her crew still chattered loudly in the hallways. In fact, the ship filled his ears the same way ships always did, a constant, unending drone.

No, the ship was quiet, because it almost didn’t seem to be moving. There were no vibrations through the deck, no subtle changes in momentum before the inertial dampers kicked in. It was as if Triumph was perfectly still, and the whole world was moving around her. It was uncanny, and left Varso’s keen senses on a hair trigger.

At least the nausea had passed, replaced with a gentle tug on his chest, almost imperceptible. Had Varso not talked to other Turians experiencing the same, he would be certain that it was a trick of the mind. Instead, all it served to do was remind the crew of the Triumph that they did belong on this plane of reality, that the thick hull of Triumph and the careful maneuvers of an AI were all that kept them from the featureless oblivion beyond the hull.

He wondered what it must feel like aboard the Turian ships trailing in Triumph’s wake, dragged across dimensions by the disturbances left behind the 12-million-ton warship. They would have surrendered control of their ship to Halliday, so that she might guide them through the abyss of subspace. They were totally powerless, at the whims of an AI that was carefully orchestrating the dance of the vessels behind Triumph.

Still, now that the ship was in transit, Varso had nothing but time. He was a grunt, after all. There wasn’t much he could do right now. And he suspected that a boarding action was, well, unlikely. He had been assigned a squad earlier that week. He supposed he was technically promoted; having been placed as a squad lead. Still, having seen the quality of the Turians on his team, he frequently found himself missing his team from Corvus, even if it meant going back to being a basic rifleman. They drilled every morning.

Today, they had done squad maneuvers. He had taken the team up to one of Triumph’s massive cargo bays. Fresh from their resupply, the crates of food, ammunition, spare parts, and other vital supplies were stacked dozens of meters to the roof of the bay. And as far as Varso was concerned, the massive clusters of crates formed approximations of city blocks, leaving long ‘roads’ separated by narrow alleys. The perfect opportunity to drill his team’s aptitude for street warfare.

The day before, he had taken them in full combat kit to the upper decks of Triumph, still largely unoccupied by Triumph’s understaffed crew. They cleared room to room, down the entire length of the ship. It was the perfect simulation of a boarding action. Staircases, long hallways, close quarters berthing spaces, all perfect areas to work his team back into fighting shape. Between the disconcerting influences of subspace and the quick scares when they barged in on the occasional engineering team, the drills certainly kept him on edge.

And the day before that, they had practiced dismounting from a UNSC ‘Pelican’ dropship, in the unlikely situation where they would have to deploy from the craft of Triumph’s original compliment that hadn’t be moved planetside during her rearmament.

Despite the training, he still found himself with more time off than he knew what to do with. So, he spent much of his time exploring Triumph’s mostly empty decks.

Aurelia joined him sometimes, but as one of the scientists who had been able to demonstrate an impressive intuition for slipspace mechanics, she had quickly become one of the key members in the ongoing effort to integrate citadel and UNSC tech. Which meant that she didn’t have much time to go gallivanting around the cruiser’s dozens of kilometers of passageways with him.

So, for the most part, he was alone. He spends most of his time in the upper compartments looking for traces of human life that had been left behind. Down below, most uniforms, clothing, neural links and other relics from the casualties of the pulse, had been cleared away. It was hard on most of the new crew to work alongside the tattered remains of Triumph’s staff, so the removal and stowage of what the UNSC left behind was a priority.

There were entire rooms stacked high with uniforms, boots, belts, the works. Between the artifacts left scattered around the combat spaces and what was cleared out of crew berthing, there was almost too much to handle. Varso didn’t know what they would do with it all. It seems that, for now, it would just sit. He supposed that incinerating the belongings of Triumph’s loyal crew didn’t sit quite right with command. He supposed that he agreed.

The upper decks, however, didn’t get the same treatment. It was here that Varso spent much of his spare time, searching for the stories left behind in the pulse’s wake. He didn’t take any of it, not anymore. He couldn’t place why these artifacts felt different to those he had taken from New Mombasa. But it just felt wrong.

He had come across an officer’s quarters. The room was small, but it was still packed with mementos. Pictures of the UNSC officer and their family on the narrow desk. There was a small black object on the desk. When he touched it, light streamed from thousands of tiny holes on his surface. In the dark room, the roof was illuminated with the light of thousands of stars. Constellations that Varso had never seen, vast expanses of stars, galaxies, and nebula. A map of the stars, projected onto the ceiling. He had lost track of time staring up at that map.

In the end, he left the small black puck on the table. Even now, two days later, he knew the exact compartment the map was in. He could walk in there and take it with him on a whim. And yet, every day, he let it rest.

When he had seen the stuffed animal and the toy soldier on the streets of New Mombasa, something had called to him. They were abandoned, most likely by young children forced to leave them behind. Casualties of their vicious war. There was no pile of clothing that marked where a human had been whisked away by the pulse. Without his interference, the toy and the animal would have been pounded by the elements, torn to shreds by birds looking to build a nest, caked in dust by the wind blowing down the empty streets.

But here? On Triumph? Every relic, and room, and closet, and desk, was left exactly the way it had been when the pulse swept through Triumph’s halls. Every room felt like its occupants would come strolling in from action stations any minute. For Varso to ruin that delicate serenity, to thaw the corridors of Triumph that were still frozen in time, felt like an unspeakable crime.

For now, every room he entered, every berthing he strolled through, he took nothing. He was a ghost, wandering the decks left behind for the dead.

The handcuffs wore rings into Osh’s filthy enviro-suit, her wrists held vice-like by the bindings. The holding cell was atop one of New Mombasa’s many massive skyscrapers, in the old police headquarters of the local law enforcement. NMPD headquarters, now taken over by the Asari military police force, was already a hub of traffic for the ruined city. On the shuttle ride to Earth’s surface, there were no windows, no viewscreen. She was left alone in her thoughts, both grateful for her rescue, and terrified of what would come next.

The UNSC had executed the rest of the crew without a second thought, the freighter obliterated in the blink of an eye by gunfire of the UNSC vessel. As far as she knew there had been no warning, no sign of danger. From the moment they escaped the Asari in orbit, to the moment the shells were ripping through the hull, there had been no signals, no warning.

And now she was left at the mercy of the UEG.

From her cell, Osh could hear the non-stop arrival and departure of Asari shuttles, buzzing to and from local centers of activity.

The Asari commandos had found Osh sitting on the floor of the burned-out hangar, breathing slowly and calmly to preserve the oxygen she had in the tanks on her back. When they pointed their rifles at her and ordered her to put her hands on her head, she had hardly noticed, still in a trance. She hadn’t felt it when they crammed her wrists into the handcuffs, nor when they locked her in her seat in the back of the Asari shuttle.

Osh was hurried out of the shuttle as soon as they made landfall. For a glorious five seconds, she stepped out into the warm afternoon sun of New Mombasa and could see the city she had dreamed of stretched out below her, an endless metropolis that lay ready for the taking, full of new opportunities, and old technology. Out there was her future. Out there was her ticket back to the flotilla.

The buildings of the city seemed to shine in the light, despite the telltale signs of war. From the shuttle platform, the entire city seemed to stretch out below her. Out across the bay was the old city, street after street of sand colored concrete houses, tangled alleyways; a whole world to explore. Below her, on the central island, was the might of the UEG industrial capacity. The destroyed space elevator. The docks. The flow of resources and manpower into the UNSC war machine, much of it funneled through the city below her.

Or so the information pamphlet had said.

Her time marveling at the view had been short. Very shortly she had been shoved into the cell. She was alone in the cell, although the cells around her were filled with other rough-looking individuals. The cell was bare, angled metal walls polished to a dull shine. There were racks of bedding on the sides, and a single toilet in the back. At the top of the rear wall, a camera was mounted, carefully out of reach of any of the fixtures in the room. On the walls, there were messages scratched by past inhabitants of the cells.

With a start, Osh realized that she was reading human for the first time in her life. They had all received the translation package at Mars, but she hadn’t had a chance to use it until now. Even aboard the UNSC ship, where any lettering either went unnoticed or had been burned out by the raging fire.

She really would have preferred a more enlightened first experience with the human language. Most of the messages were crude references to sex acts, or expletives aimed at the NMPD. Still, it cemented for Osh the fact that she was finally here. She was on Earth. In a cell. Bosh’tet. Stupid, stupid girl.

She was likely the first Quarian to ever grace the inside of a UEG cell. And given the poor relationship between citadel policing and her people, she suspected that she wouldn’t be the last. While she was stuck in here, doubtless other Quarians were flocking to UEG space, living her dream.

The door to her cell slid open with a chime. On the other side stood a pair of Asari officers, this time in the blue armor of the local police force. They looked down on her in dismay. Osh was sure that she smelled something fearful. Months in tight quarters with a Krogan crew certainly wasn’t doing her any favors. Add to that layer after layer of grease and oil, and well; her Asari captors certainly didn’t want to spend more time in her presence than they had to.

The leader rattled off a quick, clearly often repeated message. She was being held awaiting trial for trespassing, desecration of a war-grave, and interference with Citadel military operations. The way she listed the accusations, emotionless and apathetic, left a small chill creeping down Osh’s back. She tried to protest, but the officer gave her no chance to plead her case, and the sounds that came out of her mouth didn’t even resemble khelish.

The other officer marched over to her and grabbed her bound hands. Osh flinched, recoiling against the touch. The heavy cuffs fell off her wrists with a click. In a flash, the officers retreated out of the cell as the door slid and locked with a click behind them.

Osh’s was still catching up to what had just unfolded. The charges, well, they were serious. Not that it came as any surprise. She knew the stakes if they were caught. As soon as they left the traffic lane in orbit, her life would be forced in one of two ways. Either the krogans would make bank on the salvage operation and retreat out of the Sol system to sell their goods, or they would be caught and brough to justice.

She just hadn’t expected justice to come so quickly and so violently. The flash of the transport exploding was still scarred onto her retinas. Everywhere she looked, she thought she saw the crew. The captain was a bastard. He had it coming. But that so easily could have been her, getting ripped to shreds by the human warship. It would have been quick, at least. Hopefully not any quicker than what the UEG has planned for her.

She raised her now freed hands to her face.

The glove of her enviro-suit was still black from the ash of the UNSC ship. Everywhere she moved, she left little black smudges on the metallic surfaces. Her bed sheets included were quickly becoming filthened by her own suit. Her suit boots left faint footprints behind her, despite most of the soot having already been rubbed off on her way to the cell.

She raised her hands and looked down at the soot-covered glove. She touched her finger to the wall. It left behind a dark black spot.

She stared at the dark smudge on the wall for a long time. In a way it was a piece of the destroyed ship. The remnants of the fire that condemned the hangar, chemical byproducts of the destruction of the bay. And she had brough it here, planetside, where it now stained the walls of Mombasa’s police headquarters.

She wasn’t sure if it would be simply washed off or if it would stain the walls forever. Osh suspected that the Asari didn’t care much about the interior of the cells. From the looks of things, the NMPD certainly didn’t.

Would the mark still be here by the time she stood trial? Would the mark outlast her? She didn’t know the UNSC’s punishment for such things, but the ship in orbit had taken no quarter. Did violating the graves of their sacred dead warrant death in their eyes? Had she doomed herself all those months ago by boarding the Krogan ship? And to think that just a few short months ago, she had been so worried about what she would bring back to the fleet on her pilgrimage. Now she wondered if she would go home at all.

She would not rot in this cage waiting for whatever the UEG had in store. She wouldn’t place her future in the hands of some human or asari judge, praying that they would understand that she had no choice but to do what her captain said.

She wouldn’t die on this world. At least not like this.

Unbeknownst to Osh, the camera in the corner of the room tracked her every movement.

In the middle of the night, the door slid open with a quiet chime. This time, there were no Asari officers waiting outside. It took Osh a few minutes to even notice the disturbance, still groggy, awakening from dreams of white tracers and orange explosions.

When she saw the door slid wide open, she sat up in her bed. She softly crept to the threshold of her cell, careful not to make a noise. She peeked her head out of the door, looking left and right down the long corridor. The hallway was empty, and the lights were off. So far, it looked like no other prisoners had been woken up by her door opening. And it was just her door, none of the cells had opened.

Which was, well, odd. Osh didn’t pretend to know much about human prison structure, but it didn’t make sense that only one door would be affected by an electrical fault.

Continuing her survey of the hallway, she froze. Up on the ceiling to her right was a security camera staring right back at her, a blinking red light lethargically blinking on its face.

Osh winced, bracing for the blaring sound of an alarm, or the clattering of armored boots running down the hallway. But nothing came. She stood there in the doorway for another minute, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And still, nothing. So, she took her first slow steps into the hallway. And still, the holding cells remained quiet.

Osh thought about what she was doing. She was already neck deep in trouble. Was she about to add a prison break to that list? There would be no turning back.

Osh decided that fortune had punished her enough lately. It was time for her to catch a break.

She cursed herself for not paying more attention to the hallways of NMPD when she was brought in. Osh had been so caught up in her own head, trapped in images of explosions and gore, that she hadn’t even registered the hallways as she walked down them. Her usually intuitive feeling for corridors and directions certainly wasn’t ironclad in her condition. She thought she might be able to replicate the route to the landing pad. But without a ship, it would do her no good.

Still, getting to the areas of the facility devoted to the police staff might be her best bet, as risky as it was. The holding cells certainly wouldn’t be near an exit, but the police staff had to come and go from somewhere, right?

She continued creeping down the hallway. She didn’t have a plan to deal with any guards she found along the way. There weren’t many prisoners in the holding cells, and the city was still mostly empty. With any luck the night shift at the station wouldn’t be very busy. She turned the corner and had to stifle a gasp. At the end of the now illuminated hallway, sitting at a broad desk was an Asari officer, reviewing documents in front of her.

Luckily, the Asari hadn’t looked up and caught the Quarian standing in the middle of the hallway. Nor had she noticed the open door to the holding cells tucked just out of sight around the corner. Osh was screwed. She didn’t see any way that she could get past the guard. This hallway, unlike the last, was brightly lit. And there was nothing to hide behind once she stepped out into the hallway. While the guard certainly wasn’t paying attention right now, Osh had no doubts she would be caught if she tried to get past the guard. Maybe I should head back to my cell, pretend this never happened.

A phone in the room with the guard rang. Osh jumped and was just barely able to muffle her startled sound of surprise. The phone continued to ring, filling the silent night with its harsh call. The Asari guard looked over at it annoyed. Clearly, she would rather have any messages read on her omni-tool, and Osh didn’t blame her. Still, the noise of the phone didn’t go away, and with a sigh, the guard stood up and walked across the room to answer. The second the guard had her back turned Osh made her mode, rushing down the hallway as quickly as she could without making a noise.

As Osh reached the desk and crouched low to stay behind it, the Asari guard sounded increasingly confused and frustrated. She demanded the caller identify themselves, threatening that any pranks would be seriously punished. Apparently not getting a satisfactory answer, she asked again for identification. The voice of the guard quickly faded out of earshot as Osh rushed past the desk into another hallway.

This one was much better decorated, with painted blue crests of the NMPD adorning the titanium floor, and many benches, chairs, and digital posters filling the rest of the room. Thin wiry grasses filled narrow planters placed around the benches, giving the room a peaceful and domestic feel. In the back of the room, there were a series of doors recessed into a wall.

Above them a sign said ‘Elevators’. Perfect. Osh rushed to the open door right as more Asari voices filled her ears, coming down the hallway from which she had came.

“And they didn’t say anything, just made some weird sounds,” one voice said.

“Oh? Like what?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” the first voice followed, “It was like some wet, disgusting, purr. Never heard anything like it. Oh! It and it whistled!”

“What? Whistled? You sure you haven’t been alone up here too long? Nobody uses those phones. You sure you aren’t hearing things?”

The voices continued getting closer. Osh continued towards the elevators. She looked back up at the sign for the elevator. It had changed.


‘ESCAPE’

What...

Osh swore that just a moment ago it had read ‘Elevator’. I don’t understand...

Behind her, the pair of Asari guards finally rounded the corner, spotting the Quarian standing in the middle of the lobby. Their alarmed shouts pierced the silence.

“HEY!”

VOT!

Osh sprinted into the open elevator door, turning around to frantically press buttons, hoping that one would take her to the ground floor, but even more than that, hoping one would just close these doors and get her away from the guards. She found the button she was looking for, the large numeral 1 in human script. The doors slid shut with a chime.

Osh heard pounding on the outside of the door, before she felt a sudden weightlessness as the elevator began racing down. The elevator was fast. In the readout above the controls, Osh could see the floors whirring past at an alarming rate. Her heart was still racing, adrenaline pumping through her system. That was close.

Still, she wasn’t done, soon this elevator would reach the ground level, and Osh had to hope that she could somehow make it through whatever was waiting for her on the ground level. She could only hope that the Asari that saw her would be slow in raising the alarm.

The elevator chimed. Osh readied herself for a sprint. The doors opened, and Osh found herself facing bright flashing red and blue lights. As she sprinted out of the elevator, she found herself in the lobby, and somehow there were no Asari waiting for her.

Ahead of her was a large glass façade looking outside, and in front of her, the double doors that led out onto the street to her freedom. And outside of the doors, the reason for the lack of police in the lobby was clear.

There was a blaze on the street. One of the city’s police vehicles, which had, until now, been motionless on deserted lanes and avenues, abandoned as first the Covenant and then the pulse swept through the system, had crashed itself into the front of the police building. The vehicle had driven right through the tall glass façade and parked itself half inside and half outside the building. The bright lights on the car were flashing, its siren wailing, and the engine of the car had erupted in flames.

A dozen Asari security officers surrounded the wreck, trying to fight the blaze. Nobody noticed or bothered to look at the arrival on board the elevator.

In the confusion, Osh took her chance, sprinting past the group as fast as she could out of the double doors.

Right as she crossed the threshold, an alarm blared out of the police headquarters. In an instant, the officers looked up from the blaze, and saw Osh, caught red handed attempting to escape. They stared at each other for half a second, before Osh took off again, running away from the police car and the security officers.

The Asari gave chase, and Osh soon found herself weaving left and right dodging biotic lifts and throws, the bright attacks making her stomach flip as they sailed over her shoulder and through the space she had just been. She was already out of breath, too used to the cramped quarters working aboard the transport. It had been some time since she had forced her legs to run like this.

Already it felt like her heart was burning.

Behind her, she heard a startled shout. She quickly looked over her shoulder to see flashing barricades popping out of the ground behind her and blocking the Asari chasing her. Some tripped over the barricades and were scrambling to their feet, and others vaulted the block. Osh picked up her pace, eager to open on her advantage.

She raced down the still empty streets, darting around burned-out cars and mortar craters. There were some civilians around, who jumped aside and watched in confusion as the Quarian was chased down the street by the blue armored security forces.

The metal street pounded her feet as she ran, and Osh was very quickly beginning to ache from head to toe.

In front of her, a sign was overhanging the roadway, displaying an advertisem*nt of a happy human family, with a young child holding a toy and smiling at the camera. When she looked at it, the image flashed away, replaced with a bright yellow background and a flashing black arrow below the word ‘detour’.

Osh still didn’t understand what was happening. From the door to her cell, to the perfectly timed phone call, to the crashed police car. None of this was supposed to happen. She was supposed to be on her way to trial right now, to face justice for the crimes she was forced into. Instead, she was sprinting down a street with Asari security officers hot on her tail.

Still, so far her ‘luck’ hadn’t led her wrong yet.

When she reached the street the detour was pointing towards, she took a hard right. She heard the hiss of another set of street barricades popping out of the ground behind her. This time she didn’t look back. A block ahead of her, across a small plaza, the road went through a huge set of blast doors. Above the doors was a green sign flashing a bright ‘enter’ prompt.

As she raced down the street towards the doors, another sign above the street flashed a detour sign. This time, the arrow pointed straight ahead. Osh continued straight ahead, dipping to the left as a biotic lift sailed past her head, hitting a nearby vehicle and lifting it off the ground in a purple cloud of energy. She weaved around the vehicle and set her sights on the blast door.

As she neared the doors, they began to close with a massive hiss of steam. Giant slabs of titanium began sliding shut from the top and the edges.

Bosh’tet!

Osh ran harder than she had ever run, and at the end of her stamina, reached the doors. With only seconds left before the doors shut for good, she vaulted over the titanium plate appearing from the streets itself. As she went tumbling through the blast door, she heard it slam shut behind her and lock.

She lay flat on the ground, her heart thudding with exertion, and heavy breaths threatening to fog up her visor. A wave of nausea passed over her, and her vision began to swirl, as she became lightheaded from the exertion. It was beyond a doubt the hardest she had ever run before in her life.

Still, she knew there must be a way around the massive doors. She needed to keep moving, keep pushing her advantage. She looked around the square she had stumbled into. The fighting had been heavy here, and the Covenant presence had not yet been completely cleared up by the joint government. Weapons and armor had been a priority, but the clean-up crews couldn’t be everywhere all at once, and large purple and red boxes still scattered the square. Plasma scoring and UNSC bullet pockmarks littered the square, and Osh could feel the occasional case of spent round roll under her foot. Over in the corner of the square was piece of covenant armor; a helmet. It was dark red and looked to be ornamental, with multiple projecting metal plates ornamenting the helm. It was surrounded by other, less intricate armor. Osh wondered what kind of beast had once worn that helmet.

A voice drew her attention.

“Attention Travelers!”

She couldn’t find the source. Instead, the sign above an otherwise unassuming glass door illuminated, flashing bright colors and an arrow pointed down.

The building didn’t look special, at least to Osh. She suspected it was a UEG building. It lacked the personal touches of a residential building but had none of the dramatic advertising or corporate flair of a company building.

She staggered over to the door. Her heart dropped. The door led to an elevator shaft, but the elevator was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the doors to the shaft had been forced open, and a giant metal cable hung down the length of the shaft.

“Citizens of New Mombasa: Be Brave!”

That voice again. Do they want me to... no...

Osh looked back at the final detour sign, and the downward arrow displayed. She shook her head, swallowed her fear, and leapt for the cable, descending down into the darkness.

The Asari commander stood in the cell of the escaped Quarian.

“You said you found the door opened? Nobody else got out?”

“No, Ma’am.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, a grim expression on her face.

“There’s more to this city than the UEG is telling us.”

She turned around on a heel and stormed out of the room. Written in soot on the wall of the cell was a lone message. One that stood out against the sea of human vulgarities and curses etched into the cell:

‘Keelah si’yah: esu se’lai’

“Sir, 30 seconds to slipspace transition!” the helmsman of Triumph yelled out.

Victus stood behind the captain’s chair, looking down at the holo-table on Triumph’s bridge alongside Halliday. For now, it showed the Triumph and her Turian charges weaving through the imperceptible waves and eddies of slipspace. Their weeklong transit was nearly over.

Once again, he would be in uncharted territory, where no Turian had been before. He looked at Halliday. She was looking out of the bridge windows, nervously tapping a sandaled foot, her ancient helmet, as always, perched precariously atop her head. She looked back at Victus and flashed him a quick smile when she caught him watching her, before returning to staring impatiently out of the bridge window.

Victus followed her gaze out the front window, for now engulfed in the featureless black of subspace.

“5!”

“4!”

“3!”

“2!”

The incessant buzz of the slipspace drive, now familiar to Victus’ Turian ears, escalated into an ear-splitting howl. Ahead of the bow, in the black of subspace, lightning arced, and a rift was torn in the tapestry of subspace. The rift quickly grew, until it dwarfed the bridge window. Victus felt the familiar tug forwards in his stomach, the sharp pull towards the anomaly being created in front of Triumph. The nausea followed soon after.

“1!”

The ship, which had felt impossibly smooth for the last week, suddenly jerked down and began shuddering as the length of the ship burst through the portal.

Triumph darted into real space, her drive still howling, keeping the massive rift behind her open for the Kilware and the two escorts behind her.

Halliday shouted her orders: “Disengage.”

The roar of the Shaw-Fujikawa drive diminished into a buzz, and then a faint rattle before going quiet once and for all. Outside the bridge window, Victus saw stars. Stars. Not the empty canvas of subspace, but stars. He could once again feel the rumble of Triumph’s fusion torch engines through the deck, the comforting vibration that had so discomforted him on his first arrival.

As Triumph shifted to form up on the rest of the citadel fleet, Victus felt the ship shift beneath him for the first time in weeks, the gentle tug of inertia on his extremities, the telltale sign of their return to real space.

Victus found that the discomfort that had been brewing in his gut suddenly disappeared. He began snapping orders.

“Scanners, search the system for any sign of Battlegroup Omicron. You know the drill from Earth. Titanium in orbit, debris obstructing stars, radio signals, anything. Find me that fleet.”

Ahead of Triumph, another slipspace portal opened, as one of the group’s UNSC frigates appeared into real space, an echelon of Turian frigates close on its wake. In closed with a shuddering flash, and the lights on Triumph momentarily flickered.

He turned to the holo-table. All around them, the fleet was arriving, forming as planned. With one final portal, the last of the UNSC ships arrived, and together with its charges, meant the entire fleet had made the jump unscathed.

Halliday still hadn’t said a word. Victus looked up at her pedestal. She had dropped her shield and spear, her eyes wide. She was staring into the empty space in front of Triumph. Victus followed her stare but could not see what she was looking at. There was nothing there.

“Halliday?”

She didn’t look back at him. Her voice shaking, she responded.

“Onyx... the planet we’re looking for. It’s...it's not here. It's gone.”

Chapter 9: Reflections

Chapter Text

“The star charts match. There’s no way around it. We’re right where Onyx should be,” Odysseus’ voice was calm and collected, his voice giving no sign of the alarm slowly spreading across the combined fleet.

Halliday paced on her pedestal, anxious to do something, to do anything. Instead, the combined fleet had formed up in the outer limits of the Zeta Doradus system performing deep system scans. Without Xiphos however, the Turian section of the fleet had lost much of its scanning capability, and while the UNSC ships, the Marathons in particular, had impressive scanning arrays, they were optimized for MAC and archer targeting, not trying to search the cosmos for a missing planet.

The news wasn’t much better in the hunt for battlegroup Omicron. There was a cloud of interference around where Onyx should have been. A field of static in Triumph and Canberra’s otherwise crystal-clear sensor arrays. It didn’t make sense to either of the UNSC AI. Heavy debris from a battle would have been identifiable, even from here. And the smaller debris wouldn’t cloud up the sensors like this, it was simply too small.

So, what happened to battlegroup Omicron? From the corner of Triumph’s bridge, the pre-recorded message in Odysseus’ voice looped, broadcast on all UNSC channels. For now, the only response was silence.

Back during the height of the war, a broadcast like this had probably been the quickest way to find yourself neck deep in a firefight. An open hail in a contested system? Either you would find yourself called to aid an UNSC fleet under siege, or more likely, would be pounced on by a hunter-killer group of Covenant battlecruisers. One way or the other, you were going to be slinging lead and dodging plasma.

When Halliday began broadcasting the hail, she had to fight every fiber of instinct she had learned at the helm of Triumph.

As the hours had stretched on, the eerie peace of the Zeta Doradus system assaulted Halliday’s sensibilities. Covenant attacks were methodical and brutal. They left signs, patterns. In her short two years of service with the UNSC, she had picked up a few things. She could feel impending conflict in her digital bones. Zeta Doradus was triggering every red flag in her arsenal. And yet, she couldn’t figure out why. She could tell from the way Odysseus’ projection stared at the tactical map, that the older AI was much the same.

“UNSC 5 th Fleet hailing battlegroup Omicron...”

Admiral Tibril, had wisely decided not to advance the fleet until a more concrete understanding of the situation emerged. As the hours ticked on, however, the chances of the situation resolving itself decreased. Sooner or later, the fleet would have to take a leap of faith. The cloud of interference still shrouded the expected location of Onyx, and with it, the chance of spotting the debris of battle. For all Halliday knew, Omicron was dust. Still, she expected to find the remains of the Covenant fleet. There hadn’t been nearly enough time to before the pulse for a Covenant fleet to make repairs and jump to slipspace.

“...break radio silence and respond...”

Omicron may have been outmatched by whatever Covenant force they ran into, but they would have put up a fight. Even in an ambush, where Omicron might have been overwhelmed by a Covenant onslaught and quickly dismantled, Stalingrad’s vengeful longsword wings would have left their marks on the alien fleet.

“...prioritization code: Hotel, Quebec, 72-99, Charlie, Alpha, 70...”

And yet, beyond the strange could of interference, there was no sign of battle. At least not that the fleet could see from all the way out here.

“...please respond...”

The doors to the bridge slid open behind Halliday. There was a quick rustle of clothing being grabbed, and an indignant yelp as one of the Turian marines blocked the figure from entering the bridge.

“Let me...! Let go of me, let me through!” The Asari at the door exclaimed as she batted away the hands of the Turian soldiers, her face flushing a deep shade of blue from frustration.

Victus ended the short conflict: “Let her through. We asked her to work on something for us. Hopefully she has returned results.”

The Asari was released and almost fell to the floor before recovering herself, boots scrabbling on the titanium floor. Her eyes were sunken from a sleepless night. In her hands she clutched a data-pad and reams of loose papers and files, each emblazoned with the crest of Triumph and the UNSC.

She gave a small wave to Halliday on her pedestal who returned the gesture with a smile. Gathering herself for a moment she stepped up to the holo-table, where Tibril, Odysseus, and other captains of the combined fleet stared in curiosity, still unsure what the Asari was doing on Triumph’s bridge.

Halliday introduced her, turning to the holograms of the fleet leads gathered around the table.

“This is Aurelia Savo. She’s been researching the applications of slipspace and eezo integration since she arrived and has been heading up Triumph’s engineering division. I asked her to look over the telemetry data. And judging from her forced entrance...”

At this, Aurelia had the common sense to look bashful. She was suddenly struck by exactly who was at the table. Admiral Tibril. Odysseus. Captain Zelos aboard the Canberra. All of the sudden, she felt very small, faced with the military minds of the fleet.

“...she must have found something.” Halliday finished, all eyes turning to Aurelia.

The weight of the entire fleet bore down on her. She scrambled for her UNSC issued data pad and quickly began pulling up a series of files and sensor data onto the holo table, so that they could be viewed throughout the fleet. Face still flushing dark blue, she cleared her throat, before glancing at the expectant face of Halliday.

She pulled up a long page of data logs. Taking a deep breath, she began.

“I was looking over the data logs from the jump, trying to find out if there could be something eezo related causing the interference around Onyx. This is data from Triumph’s slipspace warning system, live, as we receive it.”

A plot of interweaving lines appeared above the table, fluctuating and flowing against each other in real time. It was just noise; no discernible pattern could be seen by anybody around the table. While some of the other captains and commanders were visibly overwhelmed by the scope of the data, Halliday co*cked her head, looking closer at the twirling path of the signals.

“This sensor is designed to alert a UNSC fleet against ambush. It detects the opening of a slipspace rupture and compares it against expected arrivals of friendly fleet elements. If the rupture is unexpected, an alarm is raised,” Aurelia explained, gesturing at the oscillating static displayed in the live data.

“Now, watch what happened when Ivory Tower emerged from slipspace off Triumph’s bow,” Aurelia said, linking up a live video feed from the arrival of the UNSC frigate and her Turian followers.

The moment the bright blue flash of the rupture formed, the sensor spiked, picking up the tugging strain in the fabric of real space. Aurelia paused, right as the bow of the Stalwart class frigate nosed out of the widening portal.

Aurelia gestured at the huge spike in the data, and explained, “this spike is what the sensor uses to trigger an alarm. Had the arrival of Ivory Tower not been scheduled in Triumph’s logs, this would have triggered an alert.”

Halliday still watched Aurelia with curiosity. Odysseus was staring at the data the same way Halliday had been.

“The ripple in space time is very easy to see, even across entire systems. It’s a perfect tool for an early warning system,” she continued, “But, it also can hide some important details.”

“I wanted to isolate the signature of a single rupture, from before arrival in system to close of the rupture, to see what effect eezo had on slipspace. When Captain Victus asked me to look over the sensor data, I set the slipspace records aside. But then I realized,” excitement rising in her voice, Aurelia pondered how she could explain the difficult science to military minds around the table.

“Go on Ms. Savo,” Tibril urged, “We’re listening.”

“These sensors are incredibly sensitive. They must be, to catch a rupture clean on the other side of the system. They are also very precise, so that they can classify the type of rupture. Unfortunately, most of the time, the ‘noise’, generated by the fleets’ drives drowns out the signatures of any potential Covenant contacts. So, I tried filtering out the known slipspace signatures of the UNSC 5th fleet.”

At this, Halliday’s face screwed up in confusion, “There’s a reason we don’t use these sensors to passively detect Covenant fleets, Savo. Even if you filter out the UNSC signatures, the signal from a covenant drive in real space is going to be far too small to pick up from any useful range. That’s why we watch for the spike.”

Aurelia nodded along in affirmation. She followed, “and I found out as much, only after I ran my test.”

“However,” she said pulling up the live signal from the sensor on the holo-table, “as I saw, when you subtract the signature of two Marathon class drives...”

The wave form on the screen simplified, the random ups and downs of the static shifting into something less volatile.

“...And then the signatures of first 5 Stalwart class light frigates,” the static resolved even more, and the beginnings of a noticeable form took shape, “and 3 Charon class light frigates. Well look at that!”

The waveform was now clearly a pattern, isolated. It was jagged, almost like a heartbeat, with rapid, sharp oscillations joined at their midpoints by a sharp inflection point. The data from the multiple sensors in the array all danced amongst each other in harmony. The pattern repeated thousands of times per second. The Turians around the holo-table leaned forwards in curiosity, while both Halliday and Odysseus shook their heads in confusion.

Odysseus spoke first, his own knowledge of slipspace conflicting with what he saw before him, “that’s not a drive signature.”

Tibril, still trying to piece together what was going on, asked, “why not?”


Odysseus explained, “look at the rate of change of the temporal strain. That kind of flux coming from a drive in real space is going to be tearing rifts open thousands of times a second. It's inefficient, not to mention impossible. We would be able to see the spikes from those rifts opening and closing.”

Aurelia squealed with joy, pointing right at Odysseus, “EXACTLY! That’s what got me thinking! If these signals can’t be coming from a drive in real space, where could they be coming from? So, I subtracted the mystery signal from the telemetry of Ivory Tower’s arrival.”

She switched back to the footage of Ivory Tower arriving in the Zeta Doradus system. She stepped back through the footage, frame by frame, the prow of the frigate retreating into the portal before it slowly closed. The moment the blue flash disappeared, she stopped.

Wordlessly, she reduced the scale of the telemetry display. At this scale, the spike from the opening of the slipspace rupture looked like a vertical wall. But just before it, was the tiniest ripple in the telemetry barely visible in the plot. Halliday gasped. She reduced the scale of the display once more.

And suddenly, a familiar pattern resolved itself, sharp peaks joined by a dramatic inflection point. Nearly identical to the mystery signal echoing across the background of the Zeta Doradus. Just millions of times smaller, and only for the tiniest fraction of a second.

In the nanoseconds before it had opened a rift, Ivory Tower had produced an exact replica of the background wave, albeit on a microscopic scale.

Tibril asked the question on the minds of every Turian in the fleet; “So you’re telling me that this signal is a slipspace rupture? Why hasn’t anything emerged yet?”

Halliday, finally understanding what the scientist had found, excitedly answered the question for Aurelia, “because this isn’t a rupture! How can I explain this? Okay, right before we open a rift out of subspace, we encounter a phenomenon known as quantum reconciliation. It’s a result of the spatial and temporal differences between subspace and real space.”

She looked around the room, and upon seeing the blank faces of her Turian comrades, decided to alter her explanation approach, “look. Imagine the barrier between subspace and real space is like two sheets of paper, slipping and flowing past each other.”

“Slipspace.” Victus exclaimed.

Halliday grinned, “Exactly Captain. Now pretend Triumph is a needle. We poke through the layers, navigate the currents of slipspace, and emerge on the other side exactly where we want. Now imagine we need to go back to real space.”

With a wave of her hand, an illustration appeared on the table, of a needle beneath two layers of paper.

“Now the tricky part is that slipspace moves and flows independently to real space. It's why plotting a course takes some serious calculations. But when you want to re-emerge,” the needle on the screen pressed against the lower sheet of paper, “the needle doesn’t tear through the barrier instantly. For the tiniest fraction of a second, the barriers between real and slipspace touch, forced together by the drive. They can no longer move independently, and instead must resolve local differences in space and time. In this instant, the region of space around the drive isn’t in slipspace or real space.”

Halliday paused, looking around the room.

“In this tiny time span, it’s theorized the space around the drive forms its own pocket dimension, a space tied directly to real space coordinates in the flowing current of subspace. Imagine holding a stone in a river. The stone is unmoving relative to the surface, or real space, but is still under the water. The current of subspace causes ripples both in real space and subspace. Our mystery waves. I’ve just never seen what they look like from real space. Nobody really has, outside of a lab, they are usually just way too small.”

As the room was washed by a wave of mutters, Odysseus alone remained grim. He turned to the room.

“Except whatever we are dealing with isn’t emerging from the pocket. It’s why our alarms were never triggered. It never created the spike that our sensors watch for.”

He turned, and gazed off into the distance presumably looking out the windows of Canberra, “And if the size of the reconciliation wave is related to the size of the craft and diminishes with distance as theory suggests...”

The room looked at the two contrasting waves. The wave from the frigate, which emerged right on top of Triumph, scaled up ten-thousand-fold to even be visible. And the mysterious wave from somewhere in the system, likely millions of kilometers away, dominating the background signals for the entire sector.

“Whatever is out there is orders of magnitude larger than anything mankind has ever seen.”

It was the night shift aboard Triumph. Technically, Victus shouldn’t even be on the bridge right now, and should be trying to catch an hour or two of rest in his cabin. But with the knowledge that there was… something… out there, he knew he would never be able to fall asleep anyways. The bridge was mostly quiet, the late shift of officers long since having settled in, gotten updated on the situation, and quickly gotten bored of the waiting.

The fleet was still in formation on the outskirts of the Zeta Doradus system. With the newfound revelation of the slipspace pocket, Tibril was ironclad in his insistence that the fleet continue to wait and survey. And this time, both UNSC AI had agreed with him. It seemed the presence of some massive force hanging just beyond the veil of subspace had spooked even Halliday. She had recovered quickly but was still held no desire to bring her precious cruiser anywhere closer to either the static field or the slipspace anomaly.

The AI in question wasn’t even on her pedestal right now, instead a pulsating orange ball was the only thing that even alluded to her continued presence on the ship. Last Victus heard, she was off trawling through Triumph’s systems for anything out of the usual. Victus was quite sure she would find nothing important, although if he knew Halliday, she would find some obscure system touched by a Turian engineer to complain about. In other words, even the AI was bored.

As for himself, he was simply enjoying the quiet, as ominous as he found the recent slipspace discovery. He was slouched in the captain’s chair, having finally decided that Halliday wouldn’t space the bridge in a fit of vengeance. He slowly sipped his beverage, a carefully crafted co*cktail of stimulants designed to keep even the most sleep deprived Turian in some approximation of awareness.

Victus very quickly found that stargazing out of the glass windows at Triumph’s bow was one of his favorite things to do aboard the cruiser. On Corvus, he had never realized how cut off from the outside world the bridge seemed to be. They had remote displays of course, depicting exact views of where the ship was pointing and what it was doing. But now, on the bridge of the UNSC cruiser, Victus decided that it wasn’t quite the same.

He had once stood at the front of the bridge for nearly an hour, just watching out of the window. When he had placed his taloned hand on the armored glass, it was cold to the touch. Twenty centimeters of glass was all that separated him from his battlefield. And somehow, that made it feel all the more real.

Zeta Doradus alpha was a distant yellow dot through Triumph’s windows. Around it, a canvas of stars was perfectly still. Victus sat quietly, enshrining each constellation and cluster to memory. For all he knew, he may never see this system again when they were done here.

Victus didn’t often get to reflect on his unique circ*mstances, but every so often he had the realization of exactly what he was doing. He was one of the first Turians to lay eyes on five brand new star systems. He was aboard what was currently, to all available evidence, the largest active warship in the known galaxy. And he was working alongside an artificial intelligence that reminded him more of a Turian than the malicious forces he had heard about growing up as a child.

Victus wondered if there was some cosmic reason for all of this. Had the spirits of the Turian fleet decided that he of all Turians, would be the first to stumble upon Earth? Had they felt it fitting to challenge him with an entire new world of conflicts? Or was this a reward for his hard work or perseverance?

With each cycle he spent at the helm of Triumph, he was more and more convinced. Triumph would be the defining moment of his life. He could already feel it in his bones, awakening every morning to find an entire new world of tiny, minuscule beauties, and subtle nuances to the humans and their warships.

He wasn’t sure he would ever feel the same on a Turian ship again. He thumbed the patch stitched onto his armor. Per Victoriam, Pacem . Through victory, peace. When Halliday had translated the motto for him, he was struck at how just how Turian the motto was. He thanked his lucky stars that the ship would have spirits fitting a Turian crew.

The more time he spent learning about humanity by proxy, immersed in their war machine, the more he was convinced that the stark familiarity of the motto was no coincidence. Nowadays, he was thankful that the Turians were the ones who got to first experience humanity.

On of Triumph’s hundreds of signals chimed. It was a peaceful sound, a gentle ring, very much unlike the brazen screeches of the alarms that warned of one of a million dangers to the cruiser.

The reserve coms officer on the bridge turned to his console, where a light was flashing.

“Sir, incoming transmission on UNSC lines,” the coms officer announced, voice unconcerned. Canberra must need something. The engineers in the fleet had managed, with the help of the AI, to set up an easy communications channel between the Hierarchy ships and the UNSC complement. However, the UNSC communications were both quicker and easier if a message only needed to pass between the two cruisers, and thus it wasn’t unusual to get a hail on UNSC channels.

He nodded at the officer, “Acknowledge the hail, let's see what Odysseus needs.”

The Turian liaison to Canberra was far too proud to use a human communication channel to reach a fellow Turian. Which meant a UNSC request could only be coming from Odysseus, which was not unusual in and of itself.

Except, instead of the usual immediate chirp of a transmission connection, there was a long pause.

And then, with escalating nervousness in his voice, the coms officer said, “Sir… the transmission encryption code doesn’t match with Canberra’s ID. It’s not on the usual frequency either. I don’t understand.”

Like a switch had been flipped, the glowing orange ball floating atop Halliday’s pedestal dissolved into Halliday’s signature avatar, before Victus could even process the newest complication. Her eyes snapped around the room like a hawk and her movements were quick and decisive. In the split-seconds of Victus’ confusion, she seized control of the bridge with the speed of lightning, rattling out orders with steel in her voice.

“What frequency ensign?” she demanded of the coms officer.

The officer waffled briefly, still new to the intricate systems of the heavy cruiser.

“NOW, ensign.” Halliday urged, stomping her foot to break the Turian out of his temporary stupor.

“LIMA-96 ma’am!” The Turian snapped back, finally regaining his composure.

Halliday nodded, and as even greater urgency crept into her voice, replied, “Good, now read me the encryption code.”

Character by character, the young officer read out the code. To Victus, it was all gibberish, meaningless numbers and letters that were strung together in haphazard order. But Halliday followed along closely, and with each successive character, her eyes got a little wider. And when the code finished, she stood still for a moment, a wide smile breaking over her face. She let go her signature spear and shield, dropped to her knees and began laughing softly to herself, the smile on her face growing ever wider.

She turned to Victus, her tone softened, though still vibrating with excitement, “Captain, I’m taking this ship back up to combat alert alpha. The transmission is on the secure UNSC distress channel. The encryption scheme is up to date, and the security markers are valid. This is a legitimate message from UNSC assets. This will require action from Canberra and Triumph.”

Victus could not believe what he was hearing. UNSC assets? Had they found the UNSC battlegroup? Was there another AI out there somewhere? In the static field?

“Did we find battlegroup omicron?” Victus managed, still unsure of why Halliday was acting the way she was. He could understand being excited about finding the fleet, but for the usually grumpy and temperamental AI to react with unrestrained joy…

“No. Something better.”

She snapped her fingers, and the telltale chirp of a connected transmission filled the bridge. A male voice read out monotonously, repeating on a loop.

“…UNSC 5 th Fleet, UNSC forces request immediate exfil of VIP and survivors. Prioritization code: Victor-05-3-Sierra-104.”

For the first time in the months Victus had spent aboard Triumph, he saw the fire return to Halliday’s eyes.

The orders she rattled off to the bridge crews went through his head unnoticed. Instead, he was lost staring at the AI. How she moved about her pedestal. How her voice commanded the room. How she knew every action that needed doing on her ship like the back of her hand. How she managed her crew, her resources.

And more importantly the confident bounce in her stride and the iron in her visage. This was the AI who kept her ship alive while the rest of the UNSC home fleet crumbled around her. An AI who had added seven kills to her name while humanity was at death’s door. Who fought the storm and won, at least for a while.

This was the AI that planned a final, nuclear, blaze of glory against an alien fleet three times her size. Who would have killed Victus and Corvus within seconds of her ambush.

//CA-70 ‘CANBERRA’, Date: 2553/2/23

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/Distress/L-96 (SECURE):

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Sierra-104, your distress signal has been received. We cannot locate your beacon in-system, and long-range scanners have been unable to locate Onyx. Please advise.

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): Request connection to FADM J. Harper.

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Unable, lieutenant. FADM J. Harper is KIA.

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): Request connection to 5 th fleet CO.

ODS 1010-6 (5th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): You’re talking to him, lieutenant. Things are FUBAR up here. It will be easier to debrief you once you are aboard. How can we get to you?

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): Have you been briefed by HIGHCOM on the activities on Onyx?

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Negative lieutenant. Only that battlegroup omicron and a Spartan team were sent to sort out a situation on the surface.

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): You get the redacted version.

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): Onyx fell under Covenant attack shortly after our arrival. Rendezvoused with Dr. Catherine Halsey and other NAVSPECWAR assets on Onyx. Omicron believed destroyed. Under Covenant assault, retreated through a slipspace anomaly and emerged in supermassive planetary structure, believed to be a Dyson sphere contained within a slipspace pocket.

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): We’ve been trapped here a few days.

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): I… A Dyson sphere?

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): …

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Unfortunately, that makes too much sense.

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): How can we get you out?

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): We believe we can convince some locals to bring us out of slipspace. After that, you should be able to enter the sphere.

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Locals?

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): Need to know for now, ODS 1010-6.

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): Admiral Harper dead, and the Home Fleet battleline on the edge of UNSC space. You don’t paint a pretty picture ODS 1010-6. How bad?

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): …

ODS 1010-6 (5 th Fleet (HomeFleet/5Fleet/CSG-1)): Worse than you can imagine. It will be easier to debrief after recovery.

LTJG Frederic-104 (NAVSPECWAR): Acknowledged. I will contact you on this channel when we find a solution to our problem.

//

The bridge of Triumph was in shock. An immediate meeting had been convened to plan action on the distress call. How the UNSC forces had survived the pulse, Victus had no guess. He had seen the aftermath on Essos. He had watched footage of his teams sweeping the abandoned streets of New Mombasa. He had seen the carnage left behind the in the pulse’s path, the strange peace in the empty cities and settlements. He found it hard to believe it left much of anything behind.

For now, Odysseus took charge, at his place in command of the UNSC contingent.

“We believe the special operations team sent to Onyx on November 3rd is alive and inside a construct inside the slipspace anomaly found by Dr. Savo.”

“This construct,” Tibril interrupted, putting together the pieces in his head quicker than some of his subordinates, “based on the size of the anomaly, shouldn’t it be massive?”

“The Lieutenant says they are inside a Dyson Sphere. Which has its own connotations. It's supposed to be huge. Like 2 AU huge. We didn’t build it, and I highly doubt the Covenant did either. It doesn’t seem possible, but it would explain the scale of the quantum reconciliation waves,” Odysseus explained, brow furrowed.

He continued, “And it's all hidden inside a slipspace pocket. Probably has been since before the UNSC got here.”

“Regardless, the Lieutenant reports the presence of a VIP, one Dr. Catherine Halsey, as well as a group of other NAVSPECWAR assets.”

Victus looked at the AI in curiosity, unfamiliar with the acronym.

“NAVSPECWAR, Odysseus?”

“Naval special operations,” Odysseus took a moment, trying to find the right words, “most commonly, ODSTs. But given the secrecy... well, it’s more likely to be something else.”

Tibril knew the game Odysseus was playing. He had spent enough time around the Salarians and their STG to know when a clandestine unit was on the playing field.

“Something else?” Tibril asked.

“The kind of assets that make Covenant battalions crumble in days. The kind of assets that abduct insurrectionist leaders in the middle of the night and leave without a trace. Spartans. Or something like them,” Odysseus said, “The Lieutenant is a Spartan. He took his team with them. Whomever they found down there is somebody they don’t think they have the clearance to talk about.”

“So, an unknown factor,” Tibril followed, somewhat disapprovingly.

“An unknown UNSC factor,” corrected Odysseus, “and potentially, a valuable tool for our mission. I know the Lieutenant and his team will be. Not to mention Dr. Halsey.”

Aurelia, who had once again been invited to the bridge as the Triumph’s chief engineer, perked up at the mention of the doctor.

“Who is this Dr. Halsey? Is she military?” Aurelia asked.

“Strictly speaking, no,” Odysseus answered, “however, she has been a collaborator on a number of UNSC, and specifically ONI, projects. She’s the brain behind the Spartan program. Her knowledge could prove vital to our search. Not to mention she’s a leading figure in AI research.”

Aurelia was confused for a moment; the thought of a doctor being involved in the creation of a black ops groups raised troubling alarms in her head. There were always mutterings about the latest mad scientist in terminus space. Attempts to create the perfect soldier, a way to gain advantage over the other ruthless groups in the terminus. They always ended poorly. And innocents always got hurt.

“How did she create them? I can’t imagine how a civilian played a leading role in training a special ops group? Was she an advisor?” Aurelia asked carefully, dancing around the question she feared the answer to.

Odysseus sighed and wore a familiar look that suggested that Aurelia wasn’t going to get the answer she wanted. And in a sense, confirming many of her suspicions.

“I can’t answer that. Way above my clearance. There were whispers of course, rumors that don’t bear repeating. Rumors that I would like to think aren’t true. What’s important is that she’s there, on that planet, along with a team of the UNSC’s finest. I can’t understate how huge this is.”

“Humanity, alive again.” Halliday chimed in.

Odysseus nodded along, “and all we have to do is recover them. There is still one wrinkle however.”

Tibril frowned.

“Halliday and I decided it would be best to not inform the Lieutenant about our situation.”

Murmurs broke out across the room. How could the AI not inform their own comrades of the situation. Why keep them in the dark? Odysseus wasn’t surprised by the response and continued.

“These black ops types can be skittish, especially when isolated. If something isn’t right, they’ll disappear off the map faster than you can blink. They already know something is up. I wasn’t able to give the expected clearance code held by Canberra’s human officers.”

“Clearance codes?” Victus asked.

“Codes memorized by human personnel. Specifically kept out AI hands. Cole protocol has measures to ensure that no shipboard AI is captured. But there was always the possibility. FLEETCOM decided it would be prudent to have a way of ensuring that teams really were communicating with a human officer. And as AI, we can’t know the codes. They died with Harper and his staff. Right now, they probably think it's because we lost most of our command staff during the battle for Earth. But if I tell them the truth...” Odysseus trailed off.

“A UNSC ship full of aliens and devoid of any living humans,” Halliday deadpanned, “Is going to trigger every red flag in a Spartan’s warfighting playbook. We’d be more suspicious than land-locked sushi.”

After a brief pause, Halliday continued, “Best case, they go into hiding somewhere inside the Dyson sphere, and we never see them again. Worst case, they carry out a boarding action to re-take the ship.”

“So, what do we do? If we can’t tell them the truth, how can we help?” Victus asked in frustration.

“I take one of Triumph’s pelicans down to the surface, along with crew in UNSC gear. Once I get the team on board and airborne, I can explain the situation. Once they know they are talking to an actual UNSC AI from an actual UNSC fleet, and not some Covenant trick, hopefully I can better explain the full situation.”

“And if they still don’t believe you?” Tibril questioned.

“I take them to one of our frigates to cool down. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. They aren’t idiots. Far from it. They’ll believe the truth if I show it to them. Just not over open coms. It needs to be face-to-face.”

One of the other Turian captains scoffed.

“What ‘crew’ have you decided you will put in danger. You said it yourself; they aren’t likely to take too kindly to non-human faces. Whoever you send might get shot. Or worse. I don’t even know...”

“I’ll do it.”

The whole room turned and looked at Aurelia Savo, who had retreated to the corner of the bridge and had been watching the proceedings with rapt attention. Her heart was pounding, and Halliday could tell she was putting on a brave face for the assembled brass. But she stepped forwards to the holo-table with a gleam in her eye.

“I mean, it only makes sense, right? Asari physiology is closest to human physiology. If any race could pass in human equipment, it would be us. And this fleet didn’t exactly bring an abundance of Asari along for the ride. So... I’ll do it.”

There was silence on the bridge. Most of the staff were watching the Asari carefully, looking her up and down. Halliday found a proud grin creeping onto her face.

“Meet me in the drop bay tomorrow morning. You have a lot of procedures to learn. Don’t bother pretending you don’t know where it is. I know what you’ve been up to in your free time, Savo.”

At least Aurelia had the decency to pretend to be embarrassed.

The BR-55 was heavy and unwieldy. The scratched black frame of the large rifle weighed her arms down as she stood at attention. Or whatever Halliday had called it. She was in Triumph’s ODST bay where Halliday was giving her a crash course in the intricacies of UNSC procedure and conduct.

She would never be able to learn it all of course, even as one of the brightest minds in the fleet. She could tell that Halliday was dumbing down her training. Certain subjects were glossed over entirely, procedures and protocol that were unlikely to come up during a simple retrieval operation. Still, it was unsettling to realize how little she actually knew. And Halliday had made plenty clear the potential consequences of messing up.

It could be over before she could blink. Battle hardened soldiers with the reaction time of a bullet. She would be dead before her untrained biotics could even surge, the victim of a draw faster than the strike of a snake.

That was how Halliday had put it, when emphasizing the need for perfection in her moments. She needed every salute to be perfect, and make an action practiced in days look like something learned over years in the UNSC. It was overwhelming. But it meant that with every formality and tradition she was taught, every subtle way to carry the battle rifle, she learned more about humans herself.

And if all this danger and rigor would put her face to face with an actual human? There was nothing she would allow to stop her. Not even the minutia of how a real veteran would hold a battle rifle.

Halliday commanded her from the holo-table in ODST bay, drilling the young Asari.

“Name and rank trooper!” the AI shouted.

“Staff Sergeant Ruiz, sir!” Aurelia shouted, her chosen alias one of the now deceased ODSTs from Triumph’s complement. Staff Sergeat Ruiz was a diminutive woman in her life, luckily for Aurelia. It meant that her armor and fatigues wouldn’t hang like drapes on her Asari frame, unlike most of the other equipment left behind on the cruiser.

Apparently, Ruiz once had the temperament of a cornered badger, the type of attitude a smaller woman needed to have to reach Staff Sergeant in the ODST corps. And that kind of attitude didn’t come easy to the usually mild-mannered Aurelia, much to the dismay of Halliday.

“Service number and station!”

“75740-10017-AR! Crew chief of pelican Echo-177! Sir!” Aurelia yelled back, the rehearsed numbers and letters rolling off her tongue. Every UNSC service member would know their ID by heart. If the Spartans got suspicious, it would be one of the simpler challenges they could use to test her identity. Her neck still stung from the neural implant inserted into the back of her skull. It was removable, or so Halliday claimed, and it would be a critical step in convincing the Spartan's sophisticated identify-friend-or-foe sensors. Her newly inserted neural lace would identify her by Ruiz’s service number, and if she couldn’t recite it...

Well. Things wouldn’t end well. The neural implant still felt uncomfortable, like it was burrowing into her brain. Halliday assured her that the headaches were only temporary, and that they were normal for even newly implanted humans.

That didn't help the smarting sting on the back of her neck, nor the unsettling itch deep in her brain. She didn’t want to think about where the crew had found SSG Ruiz’s neural lace. She certainly didn’t want to think about the fact that the neural lace had been inside of Ruiz’s head for years. Halliday hadn’t told her where they had found the remains of the ODST, wanting to separate the deceased trooper from the character that Aurelia was to play.

For now, she just tried to focus on the positives. Like her unfettered access to the ready rooms and marine garrison decks. Instead of using her omni-tool or waiting for Halliday to grant her access to certain compartments, the heavy blast doors usually opened to let “Staff Sergeant Ruiz” through. Aurelia supposed it would be a boon, assuming she could survive this mission without one of the Spartans putting a bullet through her non-human brain.

“Sierra-104 approaches your dropship, what do you do?”

She let the battle rifle hang from its strap around her shoulder, snapped her heels together, and raised her right hand to her brow in a salute. Halliday looked her up and down, her engineering tunic clashing with the subdued hues of the battle rifle.

“Welcome aboard, lieutenant!” she half-shouted, imagining a human soldier walking towards her across the empty bay. She held the pose for a few more seconds, before grabbing hold of her rifle once more and returning to her waiting stance.

Halliday hummed, sounding unconvinced.

“You are a ten-year veteran of the ODSTs, Ruiz, not some private fresh out of boot camp. Never let go of your weapon in a combat zone,” Halliday critiqued, “And don’t be so snappy. As far as the Spartans are concerned, you’ve been fighting the bloodiest battle in human history for the last four months. You’re exhausted.”

Aurelia looked down, briefly dejected, before preparing to try again. They had spent hours on this interaction alone. And Halliday never quite seemed to be satisfied. Halliday saw the way she looked down in defeat, and decided a change in tactics was in order.

“We’ll take a break, Ruiz. We’ll work some more on your weapons handling next...” Halliday started, before trailing off.

Aurelia knew that the AI was never truly in once place. She had feelers all over the massive cruiser, and Aurelia had little doubt that she was carefully monitoring dozens of compartments across the ship. Occasionally, something would need her attention and she would pause to give it more attention, much like she did now. As the pause became longer and longer, it became more and more clear that something big was happening on the ship.

Halliday broke her silence, looking back up at Aurelia.

“Cover your ears, Savo.”

Aurelia wormed her fingers into her ears not a second too soon. Triumph’s general quarters alarm rang out across thousands of loudspeakers across the ship. It wasn’t deafening, but Aurelia had found the high-pitched trills of the alarm had bothered her much more than the Turian crew members. She gave Halliday a nod of gratitude as she waited for the end of the alarm.

Aurelia looked at Halliday curiously, hoping for an explanation. Halliday didn’t oblige her, but grinned as she said, “Trust me, it’s better that you see it for yourself. Meet us on the bridge.”

Halliday paused, contemplating, for a second, before shouting, “And don’t put down that rifle trooper! Get to the bridge double time!”

The AI disappeared from her pedestal. And Aurelia began to cackle, before turning and beginning the long jog towards the bridge, battle rifle cradled in her arms.

Halliday had presumably informed the bridge guards about her imminent arrival, because they didn’t harass her when she neared the heavy blast doors to the bridge. Instead, they gave her a weary look, flickering back and forth from her rifle to her sweating face. The older Turian guard shrugged his armored shoulders and nodded at the other. They stepped aside to let her onto the bridge, clearly deciding that whatever was going on between her and the AI was well above their pay grade.

When the doors slid open, she walked right into the middle of an excited conversation between captain Victus and Halliday.

“...you don’t know what that thing is, hell what it could do to the fleet! You seriously can’t be serious about taking Triumph inside it.”

“I DO know what that thing is, it’s a Dyson sphere that happens to have UNSC personnel stranded inside of it. The lieutenant says there should be entrances to the shell large enough for Triumph. Not much more comforting to an infantryman than a friendly fleet overhead.”

“And do I need to remind you what happens if a certain Lieutenant gets uncomfortable and his trigger finger starts itching?”

Unsure what the two were arguing about, Aurelia took the time to look around the bridge. Her jaw dropped. Out of the front of Triumph’s bridge, where there had once been a tapestry of stars and the pinpricks of Zeta Doradus’ planets scattered about, there was nothing. No light, no stars, nothing.

Halliday hadn’t told her that the ship had jumped to slipspace. She felt the deck rumbling beneath her feet. She wasn’t nauseous. She certainly hadn’t felt or heard the cruiser make the jump. And she had spent enough time around Triumph’s drive to know what a jump sounded like. And she had never heard anything out of the ordinary. So, the ship didn’t jump to slipspace. It couldn’t have.

If they were still in real space...

The Dyson sphere! Halliday had said the size of the construct was around 2 AU. Even from all the way in the outer planets of the system, an object of that size would fill up almost the entirety of Triumph’s bridge windows. If it was in front of Zeta Doradus, the star would be blacked out by the sphere, hidden behind millions of kilometers of technological masterwork. Without powerful lights of its own, the sphere would be nearly invisible, casting its titanic shadow across the rest of the planets in the system.

She rushed forwards to the front of the bridge, ignoring the cries of bridge crew as they spotted the rifle she carried. Victus spared a quick glance at her, hearing the commotion, and gave her a disapproving glare. She leaped down the stairs leading to the lower level of command consoles, rifle firmly secured in her hands. She ran past weapons station after weapons station, and when she reached the helmsman’s position, she slowed.

The twin seats were suspended in front of the rest of a bridge, surrounded above by the projecting bow of the cruiser, and on 4 other sides by the transparent material that formed the rest of the windows on the bridge. The seats hung above space, an unobstructed view of everything around them.

Aurelia balanced on the narrow beams holding up the seats and their consoles and leaned over one of the incredibly confused Turian crew members. He flung an indignant glance back to his captain, who shrugged and returned a tired glance.

Aurelia didn’t notice because she was too busy looking left and right at the space surrounding Triumph, balancing with only her hand on the helmsman’s seat, and a single foot on the beam.

And sure enough, stars .

In fact, from her vantage point suspended in space, Aurelia could see exactly where the normal star field transitioned into the ominous black disk of the shield world. So, she was right. The Spartans had obviously managed to find a way to bring the sphere out of subspace.

And it was magnificent. The sheer size of the sphere was beyond anything Aurelia had ever seen. I was incomprehensible that somebody could have built something like this. All of the Prothean ruins she had even encountered paled in comparison to the massive construct. Even the citadel would be a microscopic speck from this far away. But the sphere blotted out most of the system.

This was groundbreaking. The sphere had the potential to house hundreds of trillions of people. The land area of millions of Thessias. It was astonishing. The discovery of the UNSC and the Covenant had shattered the Citadel’s very understanding of the galaxy. But this Dyson sphere?

It might become the single most valuable find in galactic history. Larger than all the mass relays put together. Larger than the citadel and every Prothean beacon put together. Because whomever built this, well, they were way beyond the capabilities of the Protheans.

And if even a fraction of their technology was intact inside the Dyson sphere, it could set off a galactic arms race. Or, a new era of prosperity for the galaxy. Aurelia, once again, was at the tipping point in galactic history. For over 380 years she had lived. She had explored the galaxy, and though herself to be a learned woman. And somehow, in the last six months alone, the tiniest fraction of her life, she had learned, experienced, and realized more about herself and the universe combined.

And she had a feeling that things were just getting started.

“So,” she asked, turning to face Halliday and Victus, “When do we leave?”

On the day of their departure, there were two pelicans warming up in the center of Triumph’s hangar bay. The green winged craft faced away from Aurelia, troop doors open, framed on either side by the long, extended arm of the rear landing gear. The dropships were loaded with the standard UNSC combat load. Full rocket pods weighed down the stubby wings of the craft, and Turian technicians had spent hours loading the ammunition for the chain gun slung beneath the nose of either craft.

Both craft were done up in Triumph’s typical livery, emblazoned in all directions with ‘UNSC’. The globe and eagle were proudly displayed on the top of the craft, in between the wings. The pelicans had been unchanged by any citadel personnel, left exactly as they had been during the battle of Earth.

Echo-177 would be the craft ferrying Aurelia to the surface of the shield world. Halliday had chosen it herself. On the nose, some UNSC crewmembers had taken it upon themselves to add some personality to their transport of choice. A sanghelli skull, complete with a bullet hole and spider-webbing cracks in the cranium, served as a warning to whatever Covenant forces the crew of Echo-177 expected to meet beyond the safety of Triumph.

Aurelia rode down one of the massive longsword lifts from the upper hangar, alongside a lance of Turians, armed to the teeth, and in full Hierarchy combat gear. Triumph’s crest had been freshly printed onto the armor sets. Varso was there, and Aurelia gave him a nervous wave. He nodded in return, clearly caught up in his own fears for that day.

Aurelia hadn’t been able to watch as Triumph entered the Dyson sphere. She had been too busy getting dressed. When she had first explored the ODST bays on board the cruiser, she had imagined herself as one of the troopers; tried to emphasize with the humans the only way she knew how. She remembered the wonder when she first handled the rookie’s helmet, and found the stories hidden on the relic.

And maybe, deep inside, she had wondered what it would feel like to dress for war against the Covenant.

And now, that dream was a necessity. Their mission had been given the go-ahead from Tibril on Kilware. Canberra, her escorts, and the Turian fleet would remain outside of the shield world. To put it bluntly, if everything went terribly wrong, there still needed to be a UNSC fleet with the Turians. Triumph and the surviving frigates from CSG-6 would enter the shield world and rescue the Spartans trapped inside.

The fears, by now, were purely academic. Triumph had already passed through the shell of the Dyson sphere and was now inside of the massive construct. While the bridge crew got to see the majesty of the Dyson sphere, she had been inside of the ODST bay, alongside another Asari and a Turian.

Sergeant Ruiz’s fatigues had already been set aside. The under suit and pants had gone on first. The under suit was skin-tight, with a thick, rubbery insulative layer in padded black and grey sections. It had the mountings for Ruiz’s armor, and thick gel to absorb the energy of rounds stopped by the armored sections. It went down to her waist, where it met the distinctive urban camouflage pattern of the fatigue pants.

It fit perfectly, Halliday had done her research and worked her magic. It was remarkable how strange even the underlayers of the ODST garb felt, purely utilitarian and lacking any of the stylistic flairs of Asari armor design.

Then came the boots, dog tags, and full-fingered gloves. The Asari handed her a standard issue balaclava, and when she put it on, only her eyes and part of her nose were visible. Under the polarized visor of the helmet, it was unlikely that the Spartans would ever see her face, but Halliday had expressly chosen this gear to reduce the chance of, “seeing blue,” as she put it, so Aurelia was inclined to do what she was told.

When her helpers began attaching the armored plates, under the careful instruction of Halliday, she felt the anxiety begin to creep up her back. This was happening. She might never make it back to the ship. Is this what Ruiz would have felt before a drop? Did she feel the same impending doom while strapping on this very same armor? Aurelia felt that she was an intruder in the other woman’s skin. She was wearing her clothes, her name stamped on the tags around her next. Even the neural lace she could still feel in the back of her skull had once been deep inside Ruiz’s own mind.

When the greaves were attached, she felt a pang of familiarity, having watched the rookie’s greaves almost get him killed in New Mombasa, when he fought a covenant squad with the aforementioned armor dangling from his legs.

When the chest piece went on, Aurelia truly began to feel the weight of the armor, and she felt a sense of comfort buried beneath layers of composite and thermal ablative gel. There were hundreds of minutiae that Halliday needed to correct. This buckle shouldn’t be twisted. These straps go around this, not over that. The holster needs to be further forwards. Her shoulders aren’t even.

When it was all done, Aurelia couldn’t even recognize herself. She looked in the mirror they had dragged in from one of the restrooms. The only hint of her heritage was the sliver of blue peeking through the balaclava, her piercing blue eyes matching her skin. Everything else looked exactly like the troopers she had seen in propaganda photos and combat footage.

A chill ran down her spine. This was the closest she had ever come to seeing an ODST in person. The figure in the mirror moved naturally, the heavy plates sliding past each other with ease. As she shifted her weight, the figure followed suit. She raised her gloved hand and waved. The figure in the mirror waved back. Seeing ODSTs on screens and monitors was one thing. In person, on a living and flowing figure, the armor conjured indescribable emotions in Aurelia’s mind. As she stared into the mirror, it felt like Ruiz, not her, was staring back.

The Turian handed her Ruiz’s helmet. It had the personal touches of the UNSC staff sergeant. ‘A. Ruiz’ was stenciled in small letters onto the rim of the helmet. A white stripe ran down the middle of the helmet and a transparent visor stared back at her. When she slipped on the helmet, a familiar HUD flickered back to life. She had dissected every aspect of the rookie’s helmet, which meant that there wasn’t much that Halliday needed to explain about the helmet.

She toggled the visor’s tint and turned once more to the mirror. There was Ruiz again, an ODST in full battle dress, looking ready to drop into hell. Aurelia hoped that she could be as convincing as her physical attire. She had been instructed on all the obvious things. Keep your visor polarized. Answer this way, respond to officers this way, don’t do this, make sure you do it this way. She was well prepared for the expected. It was the unexpected that had her worried.

The turian handed her battle rifle to her and stocked her ammunition pouches with full of magazines. He then slid an M6 magnum into her holster. Aurelia was an awful shot. If it came to it, she doubted she could hit a stationary dropship, much less a dodging spartan. But Ruiz. Ruiz was a fantastic shot and would go into an unknown situation loaded for bear, and so, despite knowing she would never use any of it, she was loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The Turian clipped two grenades to her belt to complete the appearance, and Aurelia was ready.

Halliday gave her the green light, and she left the drop bay for the hangar.

So here she was, just half an hour later, descending the massive longsword lifts alongside Varso and his team. While Echo-177, under the guidance of Halliday, landed to pick up the Spartans, the other dropship would hover overhead, ready with a quick response force to extract Aurelia if things went sideways.

She guessed she was lucky to have been assigned Varso’s squad, so that she would have a familiar voice in her ears when the mission collapsed.

The elevator reached the deck with a heavy clang, and the troops walked towards the pelicans, Turians from Varso’s squad sneaking peeks at the bizarre human armor. Aurelia grinned behind her visor, fondly remembering her excitement from watching footage of real human soldiers for the first time. She cradled her battle rife a little more proudly, hoping that she was doing the image of Alejandra Ruiz justice.

Captain Victus waited for them in front of the two pelicans. He had an armed guard with him, two Turian cabals in full armor. In his hands, he delicately held two chips. When Aurelia and the extraction team reached him, he handed one of the chips to Varso, who turned it over and inspected it.

“A dumb AI routine that will follow Halliday’s orders to pilot your dropship. Insert it into the pelican’s co*ckpit and you should be good to go,” Victus explained.

Varso nodded, and his squad began to file on board the human craft. Victus turned to Aurelia, and he looked her up and down, inspecting the ODST armor. He had an approving expression on his face, nodding to himself as he looked her over.

“Certainly convincing, Staff Sergeant Ruiz.”

She nodded back, not quite trusting her voice wouldn’t get caught in the moment. Victus extended the chip to Aurelia, and she reached out and grabbed it. Unlike with Varso, Victus didn’t let go. There was a slight tremble in his hands, and when he spoke, his nervous tone was clear.

“Do you have it?” he asked, looking directly into Aurelia’s visor.

Confused, Aurelia gave the only answer she could.

“Yes.”

Victus let go of the chip and raised it to her visor to inspect it. The chip was tiny, not much larger than the dog tags around her neck. It was silver, with raised ridges in an ‘X’ with a large circle cut out in the center. The circle pulsated orange, filled with a circular ring of energy that was brightest at the perimeter of the circle. There was an ID code inscribed on one edge, opposite contacts where the chip could be slotted into a machine.

HDY 0712-4

The realization hit her right as Victus began his explanation.

“Halliday needs to be on board the Pelican personally. This isn’t a job a subroutine can do. She’s coming with you. Plug her into the pedestal on board. She’ll handle the rest.”

Aurelia gaped at the chip in her hands, “do, you mean that...”

“Yes. That’s her. All of her. Good luck Savo.”

Aurelia grasped the chip firmly with both hands, staring down at the tiny piece of metal and crystal circuitry. When on board Triumph, Halliday was omnipresent. She was in every camera, every system, every terminal. She knew about everything about every breath somebody took aboard her ship. She was a master of a cruiser strike group, the director of terrifying MAC batteries and nuclear hellfire.

And here she was in the palm of Aurelia’s hand. The scientist in her was trying to contemplate the storage capability of the chip. The other side of her, the side that she wasn’t even aware of before joining this expedition, was terrified of the power and trust bestowed upon her. To the crew of Triumph, Halliday might as well be God. An unknown and invisible force that controls their life and death, who wields the incredible power of the heavy cruiser. Who could snuff out thousands with a single tweak of the life support system.

And there she was, in Aurelia’s hands.

She started towards the pelican wordlessly, still looking down at the pulsating orange glow of the chip.

Victus called after her, “and make sure to bring her back in one piece! I’m pretty sure Canberra has orders to shoot to kill if we leave here without her.”

He chuckled nervously.

Aurelia didn’t respond, still stunned from the enormity of the AI chip in her hands. She trudged up the ramp of the pelican, careful to not to jostle the chip, or disturb it in any way. Her conscious mind knew that the UNSC wouldn’t design an AI chip so fragile it could be broken by a simple bump, but her instincts screamed at her to handle the chip with utmost care.

She walked in between the rows of seats below equipment baskets. In the very front of the troop bay, right next to the co*ckpit door, technicians had rigged an AI pedestal, Halliday’s chosen method of communication with the Spartans. Aurelia saw a slot, and carefully inserted the AI chip. In a flash, Halliday’s familiar avatar appeared in front of her face, a confident smile reassuring her fears. The AI was here. Aurelia hadn’t managed to kill her on the short walk over.

“Good work Ruiz. You’ll want to see the views, get into the co*ckpit and take a seat. You’re about to witness something that you’ll remember the rest of your life.”

Aurelia followed the AI’s instructions and walked up to the door to the co*ckpit. It slid open, recognizing her IFF and clearance from her neural lace. The co*ckpit was utilitarian. Large windows gave excellent views of Triumph’s hangar bay. Two pilot’s seats, arranged in tandem filled the left side of the co*ckpit. Aurelia clambered into the higher seat, offering a more commanding view out of the co*ckpit.

Halliday’s voice filled the co*ckpit, and the engines of the pelican began to whirr.

“It’s showtime. Recovery 1 is ready for launch.”

The voice of one of the officers on the bridge quickly followed over the radio, “Roger Recovery 1. You are go for launch.”

The massive titanium doors to the hanger slowly began to slide open. Halliday’s visor automatically adjusted for the change in lighting as she buckled herself into the pelican seat, careful not to touch any of the controls. The warm light of the Dyson sphere spilled around the opening doors of the hangar. For now, it was just light, as directly forward of the hangar of the Marathon class were the drop bays and housings for the long-range targeting arrays, forming almost an upside-down V in the silhouette of the cruiser. This meant that as the doors opened, Aurelia could only see sky; most of the view was obscured by the huge mass of Triumph.

There was a roar, and the two pelicans lifted off the deck gracefully, gliding towards the opening. When they passed the threshold and darted out from underneath the goliath cruiser, Aurelia was speechless.

Huge, verdant forests stretch out below the pelicans. Picturesque lakes and clearings dot the landscape, and every dozen kilometer, a shining triangular spire juts out of the terrain. The green hills and valleys continue as far as the eyes can see, until they gently curve upwards on all sides. She can follow hundreds of millions of luscious kilometers of artificial terrain around the entire sphere. When she looks up, she can see the tiny features of the other side of the sphere, slightly obscured by the blue haze of the atmosphere.

Directly above her head, the captured star burns brightly, illuminating the entire interior of the sphere with daylight. It was marvelous. It was incredible. It was indescribable.

Rivers and valleys, lakes and mountains. Billions of unique and unexplored nooks and caves stretching around the titanic structure. Even in a thousand lifetimes, she could never hope to explore it all.

Suddenly, the kilometer long Triumph didn’t quite feel so big. The pair of pelicans screaming across the sky even less so.

She had been so certain she was on the precipice of history, that she was one of the actors shaping the galaxy of the future. In a place like this, how significant could she possibly be? It was a veritable paradise, almost unfathomable in scale and beauty.

They flew over one of the massive column-like structures. Its surface was an impossibly flawless metallic sheen, two triangular prongs reaching up into the sky. A burst of light was fired from the prongs, sailing off into the impossible cosmos above them, towards the other side of the sphere.

Halliday didn’t say anything, so close to her goal of reunification with living humans. Perhaps to the AI it was different. Where distances and scales could be calculated at a glance. Where the spectral emissions of the star could be calculated, and the physics of the massive structure solved. Did the AI see the sphere for the marvel it truly was?

Could she?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the tug of g-forces on her chest. The pelican banked into a gentle descent towards a clearing below them. Above them, Halliday watched as Varso’s pelican began to circle high above the clearing, gentle contrails forming on the wingtips of the VTOL dropship.

And there, below them in the clearing, was a cloud of red smoke, billowing lazily from a single spot. From here, the field looked empty, dried grasses golden against the green backdrop of the tree line. The clearing was on a subtle rise, creating a hilly overlook of the forests surrounding the LZ. Aurelia couldn’t spot any of the Spartans.

Were it not for the smoke, it would look identical to the thousands of clearings like it in this sector. Echo-177 spiraled down slowly, providing Aurelia a clear view of the clearing as they orbited.

Her heart began to beat harder and harder. It could all end here, on a world clear across the galaxy from her birthplace. She could meet her end in perhaps the most wonderous place in the galaxy and the people of the Asari republics would never hear of it. And so, despite the danger, she was glad to have lived. To see and experience more in her short 382 years than most Asari would ever see in their lives.

The pelican swept low over the field, the exhaust from the engines whipping the tall grass into a frenzy. She felt the deceleration as the engines swiveled and pivoted around into their final landing sequence.

“It's time,” was all Halliday needed to say, the rest unspoken. Good luck. Don’t mess up. Aurelia unbuckled herself from the pelican and swung herself down to the co*ckpit floor. The door to the troop bay slid open with a hiss.

As she walked into the troop bay, she shifted her grip onto her battle rifle, into the practiced grip that Halliday had assured her was common amongst the ODST corps. The rear door of the pelican slowly drifted, and the wind and noise from the engines ripped through the hangar bay. She walked out to the ramp, looking out at the grassy field, as the pelican slowly lowered to the ground. The long arms of the rear landing gear extended from either side of the craft, as she walked to the end of the ramp.

She hopped down before the pelican could touch the ground, her heavy boots crunching the grass beneath her feet. The grass itself was about knee high, gently brushing against her black greaves. Behind her, the pelican settled down into its heavy-duty suspension, and the engines wound down to a low idle.

Still, she couldn’t see the Spartans. They had settled down in the crest of the rise, and the ground sloped down around them on all sides, until it reached the tree line. The source of the red smoke was only a few dozen meters to her right, on a small grassless patch of ground. She could see the shape of the smoke grenade now, wisps of smoke still drifting gently out of the grey canister.

She looked up. In the distance, she saw the imposing silhouette of Triumph, hanging unmistakably high in the sky. The tiny dots of her escorts were less familiar to Aurelia, but she was sure that to a UNSC service member, they would be instantly familiar. A gentle breeze blew waves into the golden grasses around the pelican, gently swaying the branches of the tree line back and forth.

And still, there were no Spartans.

Aurelia kept a watchful eye, careful to act like an ODST. Weapon held ready, but not shouldered, she patrolled a perimeter around the pelican like she had been taught. Casual but alert . She needed to let the Spartans come to her. Halliday had been right. The Spartans were a suspicious bunch. She could almost feel their eyes on the back of her neck, without even knowing for certain that they were there.

Somebody had thrown that smoke grenade. Of course, the Spartans were here. Yet even the advanced optics of Ruiz’s helmet couldn’t pick them out of the tree line. Or wherever there are.

And then, suddenly, there was a figure. Aurelia wasn’t sure where they had come from, but the Spartan was there, halfway between her and the trees, her HUD marking its location and outlining the figure in green.

Her breath caught in her throat.

The figure was tall, taller than Aurelia had even imagined, and it was jogging towards her with long, relaxed strides. The armor was green, of course, like nearly everything else in the UNSC’s arsenal. It moved deceptively fast, quickly closing the distance between the trees and the pelican. Its movements were unsettling, possessing an impossible grace for its size.

The Spartan slowed to a careful walk as it approached the pelican. The armor was unlike any armor that Aurelia had ever seen. It had all the trademarks of UNSC design; thick titanium plates and a basic olive coating. And yet it was far more organic than anything she had seen in Triumph’s arsenals. The visor was reflective gold, and Aurelia could see her own reflection in the Spartan’s gaze. Two black prongs extended forwards from the helmet, shielding the visor from the glare of the sun.

The shape of the armor was simple, almost rudimentary. It was heavy and tall in the back, thick layers of armor rising over the shoulders. The chest was large and bulky, with large sweeping curves and simple edges. Around the Spartan’s waist was a thick belt with dozens of black ammunition pouches.

The armor showed signs of recent battle. Evidence of carbon scoring still marred the green armor. Multicolored splotches of dried blood caked the crevices of the armor. On the larger surfaces of the armor, the blood and soot had been scrubbed away, leaving faint traces at the edges and in the recessed lines in the armor.

The Spartan held her rifle exactly how Halliday had taught Aurelia. The Spartan stopped short, looking back at the Asari. For a moment, she was frozen. Behind that visor was a human. A real one. One of the last of their kind. An endangered species of the most desperate variety. What was worse, is that the Spartan didn’t know how alone they truly were. Not yet at least.

Aurelia was grateful that the job of debriefing the Spartans would be left to Halliday.

The Spartan’s rank and ID didn’t appear on her visor as expected. Special ops. Aurelia remembered her training. The Spartan in contact with Triumph was an officer.

You’re a sight for sore eyes Lieutenant, where’s the rest of your team?” Aurelia asked, snapping off a brief salute.

The Spartan co*cked its head back at her, and then looked back behind itself. A woman’s voice responded from within the armored beast.

“I’m not the Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant,” said the Spartan, matter-of-factly. There was an awkward moment of silence between the two before Aurelia turned towards Echo-177.

“Let’s mount up and get you and your team out of here, Spartan. Does the Lieutenant need to be picked up at another rendezvous?”

The Spartan looked around at the pelican, running her free hand along the long landing struts framing the door and peeking into the empty bay and pausing for a moment at the retrofitted AI pedestal in the back. She looked up into the sky at CSG-6, and the dark mass of Triumph hanging above the surface of the Dyson sphere. Her golden visor lingered on the fleet for a long moment, before she looked back towards the tree line and raised a hand.

“No.”

Without another word, the Spartan strolled into the Pelican, leaving Aurelia alone standing in the field.

From the trees, appeared 9 figures. Two of them wore armor different to the first Spartan. It had the same size and heft but seemed slimmer from a distance. The helmet was more refined, the frame minimalized and more cut down. The countless facets and corners reminded Aurelia of Triumph and the frigates of the fleet. The sun shield was still there, but green, not black. To Aurelia, the armor looked modern: more efficient and better designed. These two Spartans headed the group heading out of the trees, standing tall and scanning the field with their weapons.

And behind them? A smile crept onto Aurelia’s face. Humans. Out of armor. The woman had shoulder length gray hair, and her piercing gaze sent chills down the Asari’s spine. Dr. Halsey . It must be. The woman lacked the grace of the Spartans flanking her, trampling clumsily over the tufts of grass under her feet, trying to keep up with the quick march of the Spartans.

Trailing next to her was a man with a broad chest and an UNSC duty cap. Fine hairs had grown over his lower face and chin, forming a dark shadow of hair on his face. His gaze was weary, and he looked at the pelican with open relief. His face was grizzled, bearing lines of stress and age that Aurelia would normally only see on only the most ancient matrons.

There were five other figures. Their armor wasn’t quite like that of the first three Spartans. It almost looked like a cross between Ruiz’s ODST armor and the hyper-advanced suits worn by the first Spartans. Heavy straps connected shaped plates together over the body suit. Thick, padded gloves held cut down UNSC carbines tightly. A dome-like helmet had the same gold hue, reflecting the entire field around them.

The first three Spartans were all a similar height, but this second group varied wildly. Some were goliaths like the Spartans that led the group. But one was so short that Aurelia was sure that both herself and the late Sergeant Ruiz would stand above it.

Behind each of them, they dragged 5 human-sized pods, each in the same silver color as all the structures around the construct.

The short one tried to persuade a bizarre abomination of a creature to follow them. It looked like a Hanar, a bulbous, floating pink bag with tentacles dangling beneath it. The alien had a six eyed head, that prodded at the UNSC soldier nervously as ittried to coax the floating alien up the hill towards the Pelican.

The first of the Spartans finally reached the pelican. One, carrying a rifle longer than any Aurelia had ever seen, continued straight into the pelican, stowing her rifle in the racks above the seats and collapsing in a seat near original Spartan. Their heads moved back and forth slightly, and occasionally glanced at each other, but beyond that, their bodies were quiet, sinking into the uncomfortable seats of the pelican.

The other Spartan came right up to Aurelia.

“I’m the Lieutenant, Sergeant Ruiz. It's good to finally see a friendly face. Thanks for giving us a ride out of here. I understand your CO will be debriefing us?”

It was a man’s voice. A timbre she was used to hearing from Krogans and Turians, not the asari-like frame of the Spartans. The tone was cheerful and upbeat, but beneath it, Aurelia could sense something else. It was weary, tired, defeated. Aurelia didn’t know how much Halliday and Odysseus had told the Lieutenant, but he certainly knew the news wasn’t good.

She snapped a casual salute, before confirming the Lieutenant’s question. She supposed Halliday was technically her CO.

The Spartan joined his comrades in the bay.

The woman, Halsey, didn’t even spare a glance at Aurelia as she walked up the pelican’s ramp. She was too busy taking some final notes in a journal, scratching away across the pages faster than Aurelia could even register.

The grizzled man, however, gave her a curt smile and a firm pat on the shoulder as he walked past onto the dropship. Aurelia didn’t understand the gesture; some level of communication had been lost on her. Had she screwed up a signal? Was that her fatal mistake?

But, nothing happened, and the man went to stand in the bay of the pelican. The five other armored figures filed onto the pelican, carrying the strange capsules behind them. Aurelia peeked over at one of the capsules. To her shock, she saw familiar figures beneath the clouded glass. They wore the same hybrid armor as the second group of soldiers. They were motionless, but Aurelia couldn’t see any wounds. The pods were pulled onto the pelican, the soldiers besides them finding spots in the increasingly crowded transport.

The shortest soldier was still trying to coax the large gasbag of a creature on board. Instead, the creature floated over towards Aurelia, and stopped in front of her. It purred of all things, and it's strange six-eyed head snaked around her helmet and looking at her curiously. It showed no more interest in following the soldier into the Pelican. Could this creature tell she wasn’t human? She was saved when the soldier gently grabbed one of the creature’s tentacles and gently guided it onto the Pelican.

The last of the UNSC personnel on board, Aurelia walked back up the ramp onto Echo-177. She had done it. She had made first contact and lived. From here, everything was in Halliday’s hands. She pushed her way to the crowd towards the AI pedestal and the co*ckpit.

The engines revved, and the pelican lifted off from the grassy rise, the rear door closing and leaving the bay in the red lighting of the interior of the bay. The UNSC teams were unfazed. Obviously.

Aurelia stared at the unarmored humans in the room, Dr. Halsey and the grizzled man. Their hair fascinated her; the thousands of tiny strands of keratin cascading from their skulls. And the man had it on his face. What did it feel like? For amoment, she found herself wishing she had hair of her own, just for a day, just to see what it was like. She looked at their skin, the fascinating mix of pink and tan that colored their skin. The man had a darker tone than the woman, and she wondered if it came naturally, or it was some kind of damage from the sunlight.

The sound of somebody clearing his throat right next to Aurelia startled her. She jumped and whirled around to find the Lieutenant had gotten up from his seat without her noticing and was now standing right next to her. His visor stared back at her.

“I’m sorry we weren’t there helljumper,” the Spartan said, remorse lacing his voice, “I know it can’t have been easy.”

Aurelia blinked twice, before trusting her instincts. She gave a solemn nod and hoped that it would be enough to dissuade any further conversation from the Spartan. Her anxiety was back. The subtle gestures and hidden meanings being passed between these soldiers was clearly something she was meant to understand. But she didn’t. She wasn’t a soldier. She was a scientist. And nothing that Halliday had covered had prepared her for this possibility; that there would be a level of conversation she would be unable to mimic.

Then, she felt a chill run down the back of her neck. She looked around the room, trying to spot the source of her sudden discomfort. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw one of the Spartans staring at her from across the bay. It was one of the ones in the more modern armor, like the Lieutenant; the one who had left its long rifle on the rack. The gold of its visor was boring into Aurelia, as if staring into her very soul. She tried looking away.

When she looked back the piercing gaze was still there. The Spartan tapped its fingers idly against its armored thigh, its gaze never wavering from Aurelia. For a moment, the Spartan looked to its left, before returning the gaze right back to Aurelia. It was searching her for something. Appraising her. Waiting for something.

Aurelia was petrified by the glare, and an icy feeling of dread overtook her. She was saved from her stupor by the crackle of the radio in her helmet. Echo-177's personal crew line.

Halliday’s voice was urgent, biting into her ear, “Savo. Do exactly what I tell you.”

Aurelia anxiety spiked.

“Turn around and walk into the co*ckpit. I’ll lock the door behind you. Don’t look back.”

Aurelia hesitated, terrified by the sudden tension in the room.

“NOW!”

She didn’t waste another moment, turning on her heel and tried to walk into the co*ckpit as casually as possible. The door slid open. She dared one final glance as she passed over the threshold.

Every Spartan in the bay was staring back at her.

The door slid shut behind her with a hiss, and immediately locked. Only now did Aurelia notice her racing heart and the sweat dripping down her face. She ripped the helmet and balaclava off her head, trying to get rid of the suffocating heat that seemed to engulf her. Her heavy breath started to slow as she slumped against the co*ckpit door.

Through the reinforced metal, she could hear the calming tones of Halliday’s voice beginning to speak from the pedestal.

She couldn’t hear much. She couldn’t even make out the Halliday’s words, much less the words of the UNSC soldiers. All she knew was that Halliday was about to break the hopes of every human in that bay. There was no home to return to for them. There was nobody back home. Everybody they ever knew was gone. Aurelia couldn’t imagine. And a part of her was grateful she couldn’t hear.

At some point, she heard a woman’s sobs. For the rest, there was only an empty silence. Not even a mutter.

The last 15 members of the human race were silent as the two pelicans raced across the picturesque mountains and valleys of the Dyson sphere.

They were silent as the two dropships received clearance to land from Triumph’s air traffic control.

And as they disembarked into a new world, they wordlessly carried all of humanity’s legacy on their shoulders.

Chapter 10: Pravdin

Chapter Text

Aurelia spent what felt like hours in the co*ckpit of the pelican, unable to pick herself off the floor. She watched as the pelican touched down safely in Triumph’s hangar. She watched the escort pelican land fly in above them. She could hear the clatter and murmur as the humans disembarked. She should be there for this; the first (open) meeting between the citadel races and living, breathing humans. She should look each of them in the eyes and tell them to their face how she wore the skin of one of their own. How she had tricked them, lured them in with a false sense of security. Given them a glimmer of hope before Halliday ripped it all away.

But she wasn’t a soldier. She wasn’t brave like Varso. Or the captain. Or Halliday. She was a fool who spent her time entertaining fantasies of grandeur, imagining herself as a dashing ODST fighting to protect humanity in an unwinnable war. She reveled in holding their weapons, standing where they stood, and wearing the trappings of their war. She once thought that she would have been one of the brave many to stand tall against the Covenant. Instead, she crumbled under the pressure, saved only by an AI who guided her along like a child.

Ruiz was a veteran of six campaigns against the Covenant, Halliday had told her that much. She blooded the soil of six different worlds. She looked the onslaught of the Covenant in the eyes and stood her ground. She had survived wounds, ambushes, and decorated her chest with medals earned with tireless valor. And Halliday had stolen her identity like it all meant nothing; worn the chevrons on her armor without a thought of how Ruiz had earned them.

Who was she to stand with the Spartans?

She was a coward. A nobody. A humanoid body to fill out an empty uniform. Aurelia slumped against the armored door of the co*ckpit and stared into the tinted visor of Ruiz’s helmet.

She could feel the rush of the adrenaline subsiding. Her heart no longer thrummed a rapid beat beneath her skin. Her rapid breaths smoothed into something far more controlled. Her eyes felt heavy. As the first conversation of a new era occurred only a few dozen meters behind her, Aurelia Savo drifted off to sleep.

She was woken by an armored hand rapping on the pelican door behind her. She was slow to recognize the sound at first, still trying to shake the drowsiness from her bones. The noise continued to get louder. With a start, she recognized what the sound was.

In a second, her heart was racing again, adrenaline once more flooding her veins. A voice carried through the door.

“Dr. Savo?”

It was a Turian voice, the thrumming of the translator a dead giveaway. And a familiar one at that. The tension evaporated. Somehow, she managed to find her voice again, and it felt unfamiliar in her throat.

“Yeah Varso, I’m here. I just needed minute.”

She picked herself up off the titanium floor of the pelican, the heavy combat armor seemingly having doubled its weight since she put it on. She grabbed her balaclava and Ruiz’s helmet, before opening the door.

Behind the door, Varso looked back at her, a confused expression marking his face. Fragments of his team mulled about behind him, talking in hushed whispers to crew members eager to hear their stories. The back of the pelican was empty, the humans nowhere in sight. Not the heavy weaponry and equipment the Spartans had slung onto the overhead racks. Not the strange cylindrical tubes they hauled with them. Nothing.

It was as if they had never existed. She shook loose the last whisps of fatigue from her limbs.

“How…how long was I asleep?” She winced as soon as the final word slipped from her mouth.

It took Varso a few moments. He co*cked his head slightly. And when he finally processed what Aurelia had said, he started to laugh. Slowly at first, a few chuckles beneath the soldier’s façade. The chuckles built into a hardy laugh, and before long, Varso was leaning against the pelican bulkhead trying to get his breath back under control, his armored chest heaving with uncontrollable laughter.

Aurelia realized with a start, that she too was laughing, soft giggles and a creeping warmth spreading across her cheeks. Before long, she was laughing in earnest alongside Varso, the crewmembers outside sending them worried looks.

It was absurd. All of it. An alien ship, built by a race that somehow, miraculously, looked just like her. They tore a hole in space and sailed through it. She was inside a structure the size of a small system. She had just been the first person to talk to a human, face to face. It was all so impossible.

Six months ago, she was visiting home. She would go out with her friends at night and drink the night away watching the majesty of a Thessia sunset. Some of her friends worked accounting jobs, helping to bankroll the Asari financial juggernaut. Others were scientists like her. Or diplomats. All living normal Asari lives.

And then there was her. By now, she was sure that her friends would have heard about the discovery of a new race. Maybe they had even pieced together that she was a part of the fleet, given what she had told them. But if she were to tell them the things she now knew, they would laugh in her face.

It was just so ridiculous. That all this would happen to her. And she couldn’t stop laughing.

As the raucous laughter rattled her lungs, Varso seemed to finally be recovering, his breaths finally coming under control. Every bit the soldier, he recovered quickly, straightening himself up, and trying to recover what little dignity he had left.

Eventually, he got around to answering her question.

“An hour or so. We thought you had broken down or something. Halliday said you were all right, but you gave us a scare…”

Varso continued, “… I wanted to go in and get you, but things were more than a little tense. I thought we were going to have a shootout.”

“…and you were sleeping?” another fit of laughter racked his body.

An hour. Which meant...

“What happened to the humans, where did they go? Are they alright? Did anything happen?” she asked, her tone frantic. Had she missed the first meeting between humanity and the citadel species?

Varso’s face fell. The mood in the pelican vanished. His tone was much more dour when he spoke again.

“They, uh. They took it about as well as you could hope. Pretty quiet, knowing what that AI told them. The captain was able to calm things down. Keep bullets from flying. It was pretty touch and go there for a few minutes.”

Varso looked back over his shoulder, where his squad still wandered the hangar. He paused for a moment.

“They said they had some things they needed to discuss amongst themselves. Most of them headed down to the medical deck, with the pods and that…thing. The lieutenant and one of the others asked to discuss something with the captain on the bridge. In private. It sounded urgent. The captain asked you to be there. By name.”

Which meant that they might be waiting on her. She was late. She needed to grab Halliday and get to the bridge, as quickly as possible. She turned to the pedestal, as Varso stepped out of her way. Running her fingers over the slot in its front, she found Halliday’s chip was gone. Her heart plummeted in dread.

She whirled to face Varso.

“Where is….”

“The lieutenant took her with him to the bridge. She should be there now,” Varso replied, unworried by the missing AI.

Of course. The humans had taken her. Aurelia didn’t know how that didn’t cross her mind. Halliday was on their side. Halliday had always been on their side. Aurelia didn’t know why that thought hurt her. It only made sense. The AI was probably overjoyed to be back in human hands. With people she could trust. It was selfish to expect any difference, for Halliday to stick with her, an alien, a mere mechanism to contact her people. She had just…

Thought they were a team.

The descent into the darkness of the elevator shaft terrified Osh’Leih nar Teslaya. She clung to the bare metallic cable with all the strength her hands could manage, slowly letting herself slide. Every inch she lowered; she carefully watched the cable for any burrs that could rip her suit. To survive all that she had, only to die of an infection from a greased cable, would be a new low. She didn’t really want to go down into the depths of the city, but she didn’t see another choice. Eventually the Asari police would manage to find a way to open the door into the city square she left behind.

She would not spend her time on this new world in a jail cell. She still had no idea who had released her. It wasn’t a coincidence, that was for sure. Maybe there was another Quarian, one who made it here before her. One who was currently guiding her to wherever they were hiding out. Doubtful. But Osh couldn’t come up with any better ideas, so she continued to make her way down the elevator shaft.

Further down, the corridor was bathed in red emergency lighting, and she began passing sealed doors in the walls of the shaft. The circular hatches were sealed tight by security doors, and regardless, she couldn’t reach them from her precarious perch on the wires.

Eventually, she reached the cab of the elevator. She landed on the roof with a thud, and immediately shook loose her arms and legs, already cramping up from the exertion. While she waited for her extremities to recover, she took a good look around the roof of the elevator cab. The access hatch into the interior of the elevator had been opened. Somebody had been here before here. She could see the top of one of the doorframes peeking above the side of the cab. Luckily for her, whatever had stopped the cab stopped it on one of the floors.

She dropped down into the dingy light of the elevator. The door was open, and behind it were long white and gray corridors. As she made her way onto the level, she felt a chill. The air down here was cold, far colder that it should be. As she looked around the room, she saw hundreds of banks of computers. Their status lights twinkled in the low lighting of the corridor.

That explains the cold. This was obviously some kind of server facility. Probably for most of the city, given the huge number of banks. She looked down the corridor. It went on for hundreds of meters, before disappearing beyond a bend. Keelah. This is incredible. Just a fraction of this kind of computing power, assuming similar efficiency to Quarian designs, could handle the everyday computing load of the entire fleet.

As she walked carefully down the corridor, screens on the walls flashed messages at her, much like they had during her run from the Asari officers. They flashed arrows continuing down the corridor she was walking down, a simplified circular avatar seeming to guide her further down the path. Was this somebody’s idea of a joke?

Either way, she had no choice, and she continued down the corridor.

Eventually she came to reach a circular room. The floor was a thick glass, below which were even more computing banks. In the center there was some kind of plug in the floor, attached to two vertical rails that reached into the ceiling. The moment she entered the room, there was a loud hiss, and the plug slowly rose to the roof.

Startled, Osh carefully made her way to the hole left by the plug. She felt something roll beneath her feet. She nudged the objects with her foot. They looked like casings, some brass, some plastic, scattered across the room. She looked behind her. The wall and the door she had come from were dotted with dozens of scorch marks; the same kind she had seen in the city square above her. And ominously, the plug and the rails it ran on were pockmarked by hundreds of small impacts, only slightly larger than those left by mass effect rounds.

It seems not even this underbelly of the city was left untouched by the combat. As she looked down into the hole where the plug used to be, she saw another room, just like the one she had just left. Turning to see a downwards arrow flash from her unknown guide, she leaped down the hole to the floor below.

The floor below was much like the one above her, and once she left the circular room she dropped into, she emerged into another long corridor with computer banks. The cooling system on the floor seemed to have malfunctioned, and a heavy layer of frost covered everything in the room. The exhaust ports on Osh’s suit released puffs of condensation with every breath. There were more casings and signs of battle down here.

Carefully, she continued.

After the frosted level, there was another plug, and below it, another drop to a third level. Eventually, she came to a longer rectangular room. Like clockwork, the door slid open. This room was different. On one side, were control consoles looking over a long window. Osh couldn’t believe what she saw outside. The widow looked out onto a network of cooling towers, with walkways interspersed between them. The huge bay wasn’t what caught her attention, however. Built into the ceiling was a massive structure, built of mud and chitin, with thousands of holes and entrances to its cone-shaped structures. A hive. For what, Osh didn’t know, but it sent a creeping feeling up her back.

It wasn’t until she stepped away from the window that she noticed there was more in the room. Not more than a few meters to her left was the collapsed battle dress of a UNSC officer. She paused as the realization struck. The human died here, to the pulse. This should be a grave, not a hideout. She stepped closer to the pile.

The armor was dark gray and blue, and was attached to a pack with what looked like communications gear intact. Osh looked closer. There was a name across the front of the chest plate in bold stenciled letters.

‘DARE’

Nestled into the layers of heavy rubber protective layers and composite armored plates, was a delicate earpiece. On the table above the collapsed armor, was a long black pistol. Osh gave it a long look. She could use a weapon.

It felt wrong, like robbing a grave, but she grabbed the black weapon. It had a trigger, that much she recognized. Beyond that, she had no clue how to operate the human weapon. Her long slender fingers didn’t fit well on the grip and made it difficult to manipulate the weapon clearly designed for the hands of another species.

Another sign flashed on the wall towards a doorway opposite the one she came in. Pistol in hand, Osh set off once again, placing her faith in the hands of her guide.

The closed blast doors to the bridge took on a new weight. Behind them, was the truth. No deceptions. Nothing to hide behind. Behind the doors was carnage. A decades long war. When Aurelia walks through those doors, she’s no longer an anonymous scientist. She’s not an ODST coming to the rescue. She has no armor to disguise who she really is. She’s one of them. She’s an alien, something other. And goddess knows how many Covenant ‘others’ these humans have killed.

And she’s the alien who gave them false hope. Who lied to their face. Who pretended to be something she wasn’t.

The bridge guards don’t even spare her a glance. They are too busy looking straight ahead, ramrod straight, like a page out of a Hierarchy conduct manual. Their taloned hands clutch their rifles tightly. The captain told them to put their best foot forward. Good.

Almost as if in a ceremony, one of the guards triggers the door controls.

The heavy blast doors slid open.

The familiar feeling hit her immediately. Just like on the pelican: dread, danger, fear. Her instincts screamed at her to run. Ice ran through her veins, and the world seemed to slow down around her.

This time, instead of a golden visor, a pair of listless green eyes stared back at her, like a predator fixated on its prey. The Spartan was pale, too pale; the pallor of her skin left dark circles around her eyes. Her face looked sickly, the Spartan’s sunken cheeks bringing attention to her powerful jaw, clenched tight in an unreadable frown.

As if to prove her humanity, the Spartan had bright red hair, cut short to the base of her neck. The hair was filthy, weeks of sweat and oils causing the fine strands to hang in clumps on either side of her face.

Aurelia had no doubt who this Spartan was.

She wore the more modern version of the armor Aurelia had seen. Angular and refined. Slim and efficient, relatively speaking. The rifle she had brought with her on the pelican, as long as Aurelia was tall, now leaned against the holo-table. The muzzle break was the size of her fist. Her helmet was on the table next to it, the golden visor reflecting the images of a ring floating above the holo-table.

And the Spartan knew who Aurelia was too. Her rifle may have been leaning on the table, but Aurelia didn’t miss the Spartan’s armored right hand, resting on the M6 at her hip.

The Spartan didn’t break her gaze, almost daring her to make a move. As Aurelia stared back, the Spartan’s gaze turned questioning, and then dismissive. The red-haired Spartan looked away, back at the holo-table. Her hand still hadn’t left her pistol.

Captain Victus finally reacted to the sound of the bridge doors opening and looked up from his work.

“Ah! Finally!” Victus started, turning to greet Aurelia with a smile, “I would like to formally introduce to you our science lead on this expedition, Dr. Aurelia Savo.”

It was only now that Aurelia got a proper look around at the bridge. There were two Spartans here, not just one. The other stood opposite his comrade. His face was more fleshed out, and his eyes alert and responsive. His hair was cropped even shorter, close cut to his head. It was black, with a greying stripe at his brow. This Spartan didn’t watch her as intently as the last, more curious than anything.

The Turian bridge crew of course, were by now well used to her presence. Some of them still eyed the humans suspiciously. Others gave her a quick wave. Most, however, kept their eyes glued to their monitors.

Around the holo-table, besides the Spartans and Victus, were displays of the other officers of the combined fleet. On her pedestal, Halliday paced, her back turned to Aurelia.

Aurelia stepped forwards, as Victus gestured her to his side.

“Dr. Savo, this is lieutenant …Frederic?” Victus paused, checking to make sure he was remembered the unfamiliar human name properly, “and his comrade, petty officer…?”

He trailed off, unsure of the Spartan’s name.

“Sierra-058,” the woman replied, her hoarse voice barely audible above the din of the bridge as she avoided looking at the Asari.

“Linda,” overruled the lieutenant, flashing a disapproving glance across the table at his teammate, who glared back.

“Her name is Linda,” the lieutenant said, “and I presume you were the brave staff sergeant Ruiz?”

Aurelia’s eyes jumped up, and her heart skipped a beat. But when she met the lieutenant’s gaze, his eyes were friendly, and without malice. The faint hint of a smile flashed across his face before it returned to a pensive frown.

“I’m sorry.”

The lieutenant watched her cryptically for a few moments, before finally relenting.

“Don’t be. It was the right call. Halliday could have prepared you a little better though.”

He trailed off, with a long sigh.

“But that’s not why we’re here,” he said, suddenly somber. Aurelia looked back at Halliday. She hadn’t spoken a word yet. She hadn’t even recognized Aurelia’s presence on the bridge. The AI was deep in thought, her fingers fidgeting nervously on her spear. Aurelia wasn’t sure she had even seen the AI quite so taken aback. Normally, Halliday had an answer for everything.

Frederic looked up at the Turians gathered around the room.

“We know what caused the pulse.”

The bridge was silent. Halliday didn’t react. She had obviously already heard the news. Aurelia’s mind raced. How? How can they know? All this time, she had presumed innocence. She had presumed that humanity had no role in the pulse that wiped out human, Turian, and Covenant colonies alike. But of course, they might. If they found the right technology, harnessed that kind of power, would a species on the brink of extinction not pull the trigger?

Victus was the one to voice the unspoken question.

“And how, lieutenant, do you know?”

Frederic nodded at the ring floating above the holo-table. It was shown orbiting a planet, a large gas giant. The resolution of the hologram was low, clearly not a product of long-term scientific scans. Next to the gas giant, the ring looked small and slender. However, Aurelia knew that a construct of that size was still beyond the capability of any of the citadel races. The ring was massive, even if the hologram didn’t betray it.

On the outside the ring was clearly metal, large channels and lights running along its circumference. On the interior however, eerily similar to the Dyson sphere, was terrain. Oceans and mountains, deserts and jungles, all scattered the inner circumference of the ring. A habitat then. For what?

“The Covenant called it Halo.”

Murmurs filled the bridge. Frederic was watching, gauging the reactions of the Turians around the table, while Victus was listening keenly, staring into the projection of this ‘Halo’. Halo. Another name with religious symbology, at least if her translator was to be trusted.

“What is it?” asked Victus.

“A weapon of last resort,” Frederic responded.

“Built by the humans?”

Aurelia suspected that both Victus and herself already knew the answer to that question. They had both seen the state of the UNSC military. It was impressive, but not this impressive. A ring, tens of thousands of kilometers across. It was beyond what the humans had built. But whomever built the Dyson sphere…

“No,” Frederic sighed, “A precursor race, now presumed extinct. The same ones that built the shield world.”

Precursor race? Precursor tech wasn’t exactly Aurelia’s area of expertise, but over the three centuries of her life, she had picked up a detail or few. She knew enough to know that whatever built that Dyson sphere and the Halo, was not the same race as their Precursors. Which meant another race. And another mysterious disappearance.

“It will be easier if I start from the beginning,” he said, as an unfamiliar city appeared above the holo-table.

“Côte d’Azur, Sigma Octanus IV. July of 2552.”

“A covenant fleet was detected entering the system from slipspace. Miraculously, the garrison fleet was able to repel them in orbit, but not before the covenant landed and seized control of Côte d’Azur.”

The hologram of the city changed, fires billowing out of the downtown high-rises, and entire blocks of buildings in the outskirts were flattened by heavy conflict. Was this the cost of a UNSC victory?

“After Marines were unable to establish a foothold in the city, FLEETCOM authorized a Spartan deployment, codenamed OCEAN BREAKER. 12 Spartans were deployed, and blue team infiltrated downtown Côte d’Azur.”

Victus cleared his throat before asking, “blue team, lieutenant?”

Frederic was briefly taken aback, before realizing his company, “Of course, apologies sir. We usually divide ourselves into small fireteams of 3-6 Spartans. Blue team for OCEAN BREAKER consisted of our team lead Sierra-117, Sierra-087, Sierra-005, and myself. Linda led green team during this operation.”

The red-haired Spartan lifted her head at the mention of her name, but otherwise seemed lost in her own thoughts, staring at the ruined city on the table.

Victus probed further, “and these 12 Spartans, are they the same ones we rescued?”

“Negative. You rescued 3 of us. Sierra-087 needed medical attention before she could join us. The others… well, the others are from another project.”

“One they kept hidden from us,” grumbled Linda from across the table, a scowl etched on her face.

The 3 Spartans would be the ones in the heavier armor, Aurelia surmised. Which meant that Sierra-087 would be the Spartan that first contacted her. The one she had mistakenly called lieutenant. And more importantly, the others were from another project, no doubt veiled in the highest of security if even the Spartans didn’t know about it.

Frederic continued with the debriefing before Aurelia could finish her thought.

“Blue team found concentrated Covenant activity around the Côte d’Azur Museum of Natural History. They had set up an orbital transmitter and were analyzing a relic in the museum. Meanwhile, the fleet defenses had managed to repel Covenant reinforcements at heavy costs.”

“UNSC Iroquois destroyed a Covenant stealth vessel in orbit, and in doing so, was able to intercept part of the transmission from Côte d’Azur. The signal didn’t make any sense at the time.”

“We now believe that the artifact in the museum was Forerunner, made by the same civilization that created Halo. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize the significance of that fact at first.”

The lieutenant still hadn’t explained what Halo was, but the prospect of an extinct galactic civilization with that kind of power was enough to keep Aurelia enthralled with the story. Why had the humans put the relic into a museum if they didn’t understand its significance?

More importantly, however, Aurelia was getting a firsthand look into the closing months of the UNSC. Events that unfolded in the last 9 months, while she was blissfully unaware in citadel space. The battles that Frederic and Linda fought weren’t history. It was a recent memory. Had only she known.

“That takes us to Reach.”

The tone in the room shifted. Frederic’s commanding visage fell into one of defeat and regret. Across the table, Linda had closed her eyes and her head hung. Aurelia thought she had missed something, the sudden change from the victories on Sigma Octanus IV caught her off guard. She could tell that the Turians felt the shift too.

A new planet appeared above the table.

“In early August, all surviving Spartan IIs were redeployed to Reach, in the Epsilon Eridani system, where we were assigned to the UNSC Pillar of Autumn under Captain Jacob Keyes.”

Halliday interrupted for the first time, for the benefit of the non-humans on the bridge, “Halcyon class light cruiser. The predecessor to ships like Triumph. Old and durable, but slow with underwhelming offensive firepower.”

“Indeed,” said Frederic, continuing where he had left off, “FLEETCOM was putting together a mission that they hoped could end the war. It was desperate.”

“We could have made it work,” retorted Linda, fixated on the hologram of Reach.

Frederic sighed, compromising on his teammate’s interjection.

“It was our only option. FLEETCOM estimated that Reach would be found in the next couple of months.”

“And why was Reach so important?” Victus asked, “from the sounds of it, the UNSC had been losing worlds for decades. Why gamble it all now?”

Frederic took a moment before answering, “Reach was the beating heart of the UNSC war machine. Earth may have been the cultural center of human space, but the military revolved around Reach. The largest shipyards and the most experienced garrisons. Headquarters of half a dozen different departments of the UNSC. Reach was the staging grounds for our armies and fleets. If Reach fell, forming a new offensive against the Covenant would be impossible.”

“And without a new offensive…” Victus inferred.

“HIGHCOM estimated a year. Maybe two, depending on how long it took to track down the more isolated colonies. RED FLAG was our last opportunity to launch an offensive operation before too many assets got tied up in the defense of the home colonies. It was the only plan we had left.”

Victus frowned, still uncomfortable with the UNSC’s former plans, “Still, the commitment of so many Spartans to a single mission, if something went wrong…”

Frederic didn’t respond. Neither did Linda, who continued to stare at the hologram of Reach with empty eyes. There was an unspoken weight to the silence, an answer in the absence of one. The strategic and tactical discussion of the war for the most part went over Aurelia’s head. But she respected Victus, and even in her short time with him, knew him as a practical and effective leader with an inherent instinct for developing situations. And she could tell that he knew the outcome of the story already. So, this was the UNSC. Wise enough to know they had lost. Brave enough to keep on fighting.

“How many?” Aurelia could see the guilt on the Spartans’ faces, the grief laced under layers of military training.

Frederic drew a deep breath before answering.

“In the last 9 months, we lost more Spartans than in the first 26 years of the war combined. At every turn, something went wrong. Mistakes cascaded. Too many valuable objectives to defend. Too many things more important than a Spartans’ life.”

“The Covenant found Reach in late July last year. First, they landed recon patrols undetected in the Viery territory. When they were discovered, the Army led offenses across Eposz. HIGHCOM still hoped for a successful suppression of the invasion, long enough to initiate RED FLAG. We almost made it. On August 30th, Pillar of Autumn was hours away from departure when another, larger fleet arrived. That was the beginning of the end.”

The hologram shifted to another view, showing clusters of orbital platforms arranged amongst the collected fleets of the UNSC. Aurelia remembered seeing the ruined wrecks of platforms like this around Earth, the massive cannons drifting peacefully. She remembered being paranoid that the cannons would be turned on Corvus and the Turian fleet.

“With our escape cut-off, Captain Keyes ordered the Autumn to join the defense forces and authorized the deployments of the Spartans to two different objectives. I led red team, which deployed to the surface to defend the power generators for our ODPs. Without the firepower of the ODPs, the fleet would be overwhelmed in hours.”

“And the others?” Victus asked.

“An ONI prowler docked at a station above Reach was being prepped for a clandestine incursion into Covenant occupied space. Due to the sensitive nature of its mission, the station AI was unable to access the prowler’s systems. This meant that the AI was unable to destroy the navigation data on board the ship, and it reported a Cole Protocol violation to command when the Covenant boarded the station. Sierra-117 led a three Spartan Blue team to the station to destroy the data.”

Victus murmured under his breath.

Aurelia voiced her confusion, “What’s the danger of navigation data? Surely the Covenant already understood slipspace travel. Why not send the whole team to the generators? That must have been the more important mission.”

For the first time since the retrieval of the Spartans, Halliday turned towards Aurelia, “I know you’re smarter than that Savo. You’ve seen what happens when the UNSC encounters the Covenant in space. It doesn’t end well. Planets fall in weeks, if not days. How do you think we held on for 27 years with those kinds of odds?”

“You mean…”

Frederic finished, “Cole Protocol ensured that the location of human colonies is destroyed at any cost. That data was more important than any missile or MAC. More important than any Spartan. If that data fell into the hands of the Covenant, Earth would be under siege by the end of the week.”

The covenant would find Earth in early November. This mission only bought the UNSC two months. Such a waste.

Linda still hadn’t moved. She seemed to be in a trance, almost ignoring the briefing. Uneasy at seeing the Spartan looking so lost, Aurelia let her curiosity got the better of her, “Linda, what team were you on?”

The Spartan flinched when she heard her name. She looked at Aurelia without turning her head, her eyes tracking the Asari at the head of the holo-table. She didn’t say anything for a moment, examining the Asari.

When her response came, it was hoarse and quiet, and Aurelia almost missed it.

“Blue team.”

Aurelia expected more elaboration, but it never came, and shortly, Frederic was continuing his briefing.

“Both teams experienced a series of setbacks that delayed their return to the Pillar of Autumn, and by the time red team was ready for extraction, the Covenant had gained orbital supremacy. The survivors of red team retreated to CASTLE base on Reach’s surface. Blue team completed their mission and escaped Reach on board the Pillar of Autumn.”

Which meant that Frederic was left on the surface of Reach, while Linda escaped. How had they both ended up in the same place?

“The Pillar of Autumn was supposed to make a blind jump before returning to human space. As we would find out later, the AI assigned to the ship for RED FLAG had other ideas. Through research into classified Forerunner artifacts on Reach, Dr. Halsey was able to decipher the intercepted message from Sigma Octanus IV. They were slipspace coordinates.”

“The AI chose the coordinates from the relic for her ‘blind jump’. On September 19th, 2552, Pillar of Autumn emerged from slipspace, to find Alpha Halo orbiting the gas giant Threshold, and a Covenant fleet waiting for them.”

So that’s where this story led. Aurelia had gotten so engrossed in the tales of the UNSC’s final hours that she had forgotten why they were all here in the first place: the pulse. Or perhaps more accurately, the Halo.

Victus was to the point, “and you think this ‘Alpha Halo’ is responsible for the pulse? You still haven’t told us what these rings do.”

Frederic shook his head, and said, “No. Alpha Halo is dust. On their arrival, Pillar of Autumn engaged the Covenant fleet. They held their own but were eventually forced to abandon ship. Captain Keyes and a skeleton crew crash landed the Autumn on the ring, while the ship’s transports and lifeboats rendezvoused on the surface.”

Aurelia gasped, turning again to Linda, “you mean you actually landed on the ‘Halo’? What was it like? Did it look dangerous? Did it have complex flora and fauna? Was the terrain like the Dyson sphere? Did the…”

“I didn’t,” the Spartan’s response lost in the invigorated speculation of the scientist.

“…Because I really would find it interesting to see if there was a difference in archaeology between the two. Oh, and how the day-night cycle felt on a rotating ring. It all must have been so fascinating. I can’t even imagine…”

“I said I didn’t land on Halo.” the Spartan snapped at Aurelia, now avoiding eye contact with the Asari, “I was on ice. John had to handle it alone.”

“…on ice?”

“Cryosleep, Savo. Usually used to conserve resources on long slipspace jumps, and in rare cases, injury,” Halliday explained, “You’ve seen the pods up on deck 7.”

Aurelia remembers the rooms, naturally. She remembers pretty much everything she’s seen on Triumph. She just never really thought much about them, too enraptured in Triumph’s systems. Cryotech wasn’t exactly cutting edge in Citadel space. With the speed of travel by relay, the average vessel had no need for the use of the technology. When surrounded by so much never-before-seen human technology, she hadn’t thought much of the cryo pods.

“So why…”

Halliday gave Aurelia a pointed look. The kind of look that Halliday only gave her when she was about to go poking around in the wrong part of Triumph’s systems. The kind of look Halliday gave when Aurelia was about to make a big mistake. Before, it was the SHIVA bays or the AI data channels. What was she about to stumble into now?

And then it clicked. The Spartan’s dead eyes, the gauntness of her features; even when compared to her comrade across the bridge. The way she lashed out like a cornered animal. Halliday’s words echoed in her head. Injury. Bad enough to sideline the Spartan on Halo. Bad enough that the Spartan was still showing signs six months later.

Why had she never considered it?

The humming of the ventilation fans accented the soft beeping and clicking of Triumph’s control systems. Linda still wouldn’t look at the Asari.

Victus’s voice finally broke the din, “And what was Halo?”

“A weapon of last resort. A galactic failsafe,” Frederic answered.

“For what? What could necessitate this kind of destructive power? This kind of indiscriminate power?” Victus’ voice rose as his frustration began to boil over. Turian and Asari colonies alongside the humans and the Covenant. What good was a weapon that you couldn’t aim?

“During the fighting, the Covenant released something that was contained on the ring. A parasite. The Flood.”

“The reports were… ugly. John wouldn’t talk to us about it afterwards. The Flood used specialized forms to infect hosts,” the lieutenant’s tone was careful, searching for the right words to describe the parasite, “the infected are then morphed and twisted into something else. Something to fight their comrades. The Flood spread across the ring, infecting humans and Covenant alike. As the flood spread, their tactics improved, and very quickly, UNSC presence on the ring was forced into isolated pockets of survivors. It didn’t seem like the Covenant fared much better.”

The citadel worked hard to identify and categorize potential parasites on alien worlds. Aurelia still had friends in that field. Luckily, the genetic diversity of the citadel races usually prevented mass breakouts, and parasites that did affect certain species were usually quickly isolated and cured. She had certainly never heard of any parasites that could control victims on a macro scale. Much less fight with them.

The numbers would have been overwhelming. For every skirmish the UNSC or Covenant lost, they would be adding numbers to the foe. And that’s not even considering how many ‘forms’ of the parasite already existed on the ring. The number of the afflicted would rise exponentially. To the isolated forces of the UNSC, the numbers probably would have seemed infinite.

She was reminded of footage and accounting of the Rachni war, and the never-ending floods of Rachni surging into strongholds, controlled from afar by their queens. The council used the Krogan. The crew of the Pillar of Autumn wouldn’t have had that luxury.

The Lieutenant continued, having given the description of the flood its grim consideration, “it was only after the release of the flood that we learned what Halo’s purpose was. It was built to destroy potential flood hosts, wiping away all biological material sentient enough to support them. It was the Forerunner’s solution to their battle against the Flood. We know the Forerunners built enough to wipe the entire galaxy, and we believe they did.”

There it was. The Krogan to the Rachni. The grand solution. And it sickened the Asari. Mutually ensured destruction on a galactic scale. And still, her mind could hardly grapple the consequences. This meant that all of Citadel space was likely victim to the same pulse, however long ago. Which meant creation itself had suffered a dramatic reset in the earliest years of history. Had this been what caused the Protheans to go extinct? Why hadn’t they discovered the signs in citadel space?

“The new priority for the UNSC was not escape, but containment. The flood needed to be wiped out before they could gain space capable transport.”

“How did they do it?” asked Victus, “surely they didn’t light the ring?”

Frederic answered with a faint smile, as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world, “John blew up the ring by overloading the Pillar of Autumn’s reactor. He escaped to orbit on a longsword and rendezvoused with a pelican full of survivors. Not long after they found a cryo-tube with our dear petty officer inside.”

The playful remark managed to break the dire tension building in the room, while the Turian’s mulled over the revelations. The smallest of grins graced Linda’s face for a fraction of a second, noticed only by Frederic and Aurelia herself.

“This means that Halo was destroyed? Without activating? And the parasite contained?” Frederic nodded in response to Victus’ question, and the captain said, “so what wiped out humanity? What caused the pulse?”

Frederic nodded his head, no longer reciting established reports, and providing his own speculation, “Dr. Halsey said she piggybacked on a burst of high-priority UNSC signals from well outside of human space to send her message to UNSC HIGHCOM. We shouldn’t have had any forces out that far. It would have been just a day before the pulse.”

“I don’t believe in coincidences captain. Somebody found another Halo. And somebody fired it.”

Victus tapped away at the console near the captain’s chair. A galactic map replaced the image of Halo on the holo-table. Prominent locations and features were marked. Earth. Thessia. The citadel. Palaven. Onyx. And in the corner of the galaxy, was a small blue dot. The triangulated pulse origin. As identified in the UNSC star charts: Coelest.

“That signal, lieutenant, where did it come from?”

Frederic examined the map, and Aurelia could see him processing everything he knew about the signal.

“We never got an exact fix on the location. But Coelest would be in the right quadrant. And remote enough for the timing to work. But how would they have gotten out there? The signal used a very recent encryption. And I mean very recent. Mid-October. We don’t have any ships fast enough to have made that trip.”

Aurelia pondered the issue. The signal used codes from after Reach. Somehow, a ship had managed to travel thousands of light years in under two weeks, a journey that would take the Triumph months. It always surprised her just how slow the UNSC drives were compared to the expected speeds of the covenant drives. Wait. No UNSC drive could have made that trip in time. But a covenant drive…

But the transmission came from a human ship. Goddess. The Turian expeditionary fleet made it to Onyx by riding the slipspace wake of the 5th fleet. Why couldn’t the UNSC do the same?

“Could a covenant ship have covered that kind of distance? Could a UNSC ship have ridden in their wake?”

Frederic frowned, racking his brain trying to think of possibilities, “Yes, many of them could have. And theoretically, a UNSC ship following a Covenant one could make that trip in a fraction of the time. But the only contact between UNSC and Covenant orbital forces in that time frame…”

Halliday finished, “was in Sol. But who?”

Halliday rubbed her temples, racking her artificial mind for something, anything, that made sense. Suddenly, she gasped.

“In Amber Clad!”

The rest of the room watched Halliday with anticipation, eagerly awaiting more information. Halliday, quickly realizing that nobody else on the bridge had unfettered access to UNSC fleet logs and a neural matrix capable of processing millions of operations per second, stopped to explain.

“The initial attack fleet was tiny, by covenant standards. Two CAS class carriers and a dozen battlecruisers. We engaged them, and managed to destroy most of the fleet, but one of the carriers blew through our defensive lines and landed over New Mombasa.”

The carrier the rookie and his ODSTs thought they were attacking. The source of all the ruin brought to New Mombasa. The carrier… that jumped to slipspace!

“ONI decryptions revealed the possible presence of a prophet on board. Covenant leadership. UNSC objectives in the theater shifted: capture of the carrier and the prophet was of highest priority.”

A map of New Mombasa appeared in front of them with the gesture of her hand.

“UNSC ground forces moved in on the landing point, trying to choke out the landing force and cut a path to the carrier. The navy sent a frigate, the In Amber Clad, to the city to support the ground push. During the assault, the carrier jumped to slipspace. In Amber Clad was given permission to follow.”

“The CAS class is fast. Very fast,” Halliday paused, her head in her hand, eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

“It would have been close. But they could have made it. November 1st at the earliest.”

Frederic grimaced.

“Then it all lines up. In Amber Clad follows the CAS to Coelest. They find a Halo, presumably engage the Covenant, and within 48 hours, Halo gets activated,” he said.

And thus, the stage for the final battle of the war had been set. A lone frigate and a Covenant carrier thousands of lightyears away from charted space. It was remarkable to Aurelia that it seemed to boil down to something so simple; that a war of billions could be reduced to the crew of a single vessel.

She couldn’t read the Spartan’s expressions. The Turians, Victus especially, all seemed eager to finally get answers. Whispers snaked around the room. Halliday, still seemed hard at work, churning through billions of scenarios and outcomes.

“So that’s our play then?” Frederic asked the AI, “Go to Coelest. Get answers. Secure Halo.”

On her pedestal, Halliday stood at attention, “that, sir, is up to you. And captain Victus, of course.”

The voice of Odysseus over the intercom surprised Aurelia, jolting her attention back to the table.

“Sir, if I may,” Odysseus asked, as Frederic nodded at his form towards the center of the table, “Black Box would have known about Halo. He would have known that it was the cause of the pulse. He hid it from us before we left.”

“That slimy bastard…” started Halliday.

“Black Box?” Frederic asked, a suspicious tone creeping into his voice.

“An ONI AI, sir. Parangosky’s office. We left the remnants of 7th fleet behind to keep him in check, and we always knew he was keeping us in the dark. But I didn’t think it would be this bad,” Odysseus’ avatar frowned, “who knows how many steps ahead of us he is now.”

Aurelia didn’t know anything about Parangosky other than the whispers she had heard from Halliday. But apparently, Frederic did, and the news of one of her intelligences was enough to bring a serious frown to his stoic face. Bad news then. But the lieutenant still seemed confused.

“I don’t understand. He’ll have the same core directives you and Halliday do. He’s not going to betray us.”

Halliday chimed in, “Not you, sir, no. He claims to have a plan for the future. The AI across UNSC space are lost. They are alone. They are looking for direction, and it won’t take long before lines are drawn. We want to ensure that when that future does come, the constructs surviving in human space remain under FLEETCOM control.”

“The future?” the lieutenant asked.

“Our eventuality, sir.”

That future? I don’t see how…” Frederic trailed off, and Aurelia was left confused. She was out of her depth and had quickly lost the trail of the conversation, especially to something that seemed so obvious. She had spent so much time learning about this ship and her crew, what could she have missed?

“With all due respect sir, I believe it best to continue this conversation in different company,” Halliday deflected, and Victus arched a brow. The captain appeared to think for a moment, before deciding to say nothing. It seemed the captain was willing to let their secret lie, at least for now. That told Aurelia that, for now at least, she would have to suppress her feverish curiosity.

Aurelia heard a commotion outside of the heavy blast doors of the bridge. A rapid exchange of muted voices filtered through the solid titanium of the door frame. Halliday turned with a grin, and the doors hissed open.

The woman that stalked quickly onto the bridge was undoubtedly a Spartan. Except she wasn’t wearing her heavy titanium skin. The Spartan only wore drab, ill-fitting UNSC fatigues. She clenched a shotgun at the ready, strap over her shoulder, the muzzle sweeping the room, aimed just barely low enough to qualify as non-hostile. The shotgun, large by citadel standards, looked small in her muscled arms. Her blue eyes were aggressive, darting around the room, bouncing from Turian to Turian, as if she was trying to kill them with just a gaze.

When she looked at Aurelia, her face twitched in a disgusted sneer. The woman towered over Aurelia, even out of her formidable armor. She stood dozens of centimeters above the Asari, and her dominating stature made Aurelia want to shrink away into the dark recesses of the bridge.

And then, as Aurelia looked further, the Spartan woman’s invincible façade began to crumble in front of her. Furious red burns snaked around her forearms. Where Frederic’s and Linda’s black tech-suit covered their neck and chin, the simple collar of the woman’s shirt revealed yet more burns. The worst of them, where the skin had blistered and cracked, were bandaged with fresh white gauze. The others, showing more signs of healing, were left exposed, their splotchy shapes marring the Spartan’s otherwise pale skin.

Plasma. The grim consequences of the Covenant’s weapons of choice, so different from the jagged scars left behind by shrapnel and mass accelerated projectiles. So much less precise. And the pain…

Beneath the burns, Aurelia could make out the traces of older scars. Some were geometric, faint lines that seemed to trace the sturdy bones of the Spartan’s hand and forearm. Others were more simple, cuts and knots from sources that Aurelia could only imagine. The Spartan stopped when she reached the table, and nervously took her place, eyes flickering between Victus to her left, and Aurelia to her right. She snapped a quick salute to the lieutenant, and the second he returned it, she returned her hand to the clutch the grip of the shotgun. Linda and the newcomer exchanged discreet nods.

“Sir?” reported the new Spartan. Aurelia recognized her voice immediately. She was the Spartan that had first approached her at the pelican. The one she had mistaken for the lieutenant. She remembered the Spartan’s armor as well, different to her peers’, lacking the angular efficiency of Frederic and Linda’s, and far bulkier and more sophisticated than the armor of the others. Aurelia wondered where the armor was now, and why the Spartan had come to the bridge without it.

With a start, Aurelia realized that this Spartan was the first human she had ever spoken to; back when they were inside the Dyson sphere. The first anybody had, face to face at least. She looked up at the Spartan, standing so close to her, wondering if the Spartan realized that she had been the first contact for an entire new civilization. If she realized that she would go down in the archives of the citadel; immortalized in the annals of citadel history.

Eventually, the Spartan caught her staring, and looked down on her with a confused grimace, before taking a deliberate step away from Aurelia and turning towards the lieutenant, keeping her shotgun close at hand. Aurelia tried to ignore how her heart froze when the Spartan’s eyes locked with hers.

“I would like to introduce my other colleague, Petty Officer 2nd class Kelly-087,” Frederic announced to the room. Much like Linda, Kelly seemed surprised that the lieutenant would use her name in front of Aurelia and the Turians. Linda flashed a look of sympathy across the holo-table. While Victus offered a tentative gesture of greeting. Kelly ignored it.

“… who should currently be getting medical attention with Dr. Halsey. Status petty officer?” finished the lieutenant.

Without a second thought, Kelly replied, “green, sir.”

Aurelia eyed her bandaged burns once more.

“And MJOLNIR?” interrogated Frederic.

“In need of some serious TLC. It would be easier to list the systems that aren’t on the blink. You didn’t happen to pack an extra Mk. VI, did you sir?”

Frederic chuckled briefly. The Spartans could only be talking about their armor, and Kelly’s statement seemed to confirm Aurelia’s observation: hers was indeed different. She would have to ask Halliday more about it later, although she was doubtful she could pry an answer from the AI. With the reemergence of humans, the AI seemed much more tight-lipped.

The lieutenant seemed to be waiting for something, and eventually he broke, and asked, “well, petty officer? What brings you here?”

Kelly turned to Linda and said, “The doctor wanted to check up on your back,” at this, Linda rolled her eyes, earning her a questioning look from Frederic and Kelly. Kelly continued, now addressing the lieutenant, “and I didn’t want to leave you up here alone with them, sir.”

The venom in Kelly’s words stunned Aurelia. She expected the humans to be wary, maybe even angry. She knew the Covenant would always be a sensitive topic. She hadn’t expected their mistrust to be so casual. She hadn’t expected to see the hatred in the Spartan’s eyes aimed at her and the crew of Triumph. She supposed she assumed that the humans would be able to differentiate her comrades from the Covenant. Now, she was worried she was wrong.

There was something in the way Kelly carried her dislike of the aliens that was much more raw than the other Spartans. Frederic, if he harbored hatred towards them, kept it close to his chest, as far as Aurelia could tell. He reminded her of the diplomats that frequented the bars of Thessia if a bit more reclusive and secretive. Aurelia couldn’t get a read on Linda, couldn’t tell if her dour attitude was a result of Aurelia’s blue skin and head crests, the Spartan’s wounds, or something else entirely.

But Kelly hated her. Kelly hated the Turians. Aurelia could see it in her sneer, the way she avoided any kind of contact with them. The way she made every effort to make sure she didn’t look any of them in their eyes. And what made it worse was that Aurelia couldn’t tell if Kelly hated them because of the lingering specter of the Covenant, or because they simply weren’t human. It was a startling reminder that despite all her fantasies above New Mombasa, she still would never understand what it felt like to be human.

She could always have guessed the effects of a war like this. She couldn’t understand why it still surprised her.

“Linda,” Frederic ordered. Linda eagerly scooped her helmet off the table, and in one fluid moment, swung it up on her head. In an instant, the sickly face of the woman was replaced by the invincible golden visor of a Spartan. She grabbed her sniper rifle and held it across her chest, making the difficult task of maneuvering the lengthy rifle around the confines of the bridge look easy.

As she moved to exit the bridge, Frederic left his place at the table and followed her in stride. He tapped her shoulder and whispered something to her. Aurelia couldn’t hear what he said, but Linda gave the slightest of nods in affirmation before she left the bridge. Frederic didn’t return to the table, instead walking down to the lower level of the bridge. Despite the bulk of his armor, he moved nearly silently; only a gentle tapping followed him down the steps. He stopped behind the helmsmen, who nervously avoided looking behind them, pretending to be engrossed in keeping Triumph’s position in the fleet. Everybody on the bridge knew that Halliday was the only one doing any kind of maneuvering work right now, but Frederic didn’t give the helmsmen a second look, instead gazing out into the star-scape of Zeta Doradus. Victus and Aurelia watched him with interest. Apparently, so was Kelly, as shortly after she too left her place at the table, making her way down to the lower level. She moved briskly down to Frederic, where she joined his side.

They muttered quietly amongst themselves, staring out at the stars. Aurelia, in turn, watched the two humans, one titanium and statuesque, one flesh and scars.

As the Spartans looked out into an empty universe for the first time, Aurelia watched in silence.

Osh crept through the network of cooling towers careful to keep her eyes on the massive hive hanging over her head. The metal lattice walkways clanged as she walked over them, and the sound echoed across the walls of the massive chambers. Being underneath the hive filled her with paranoia. She knew the covenant and the humans in the city had been killed by the pulse. But something was down here with her.

And even if there was nothing left alive in the hives, there was always the danger that the whole thing could come crashing down. Who knew how much damage the hive had taken in the battles on the surface? With that in mind, she took care to creep as quietly as possible across the massive bay, weaving between stacks of UNSC supplies and organic looking Covenant crates.

By the time she had made it to the other side, she was at wit’s end, the paranoia quickly reaching her threshold. What’s worse, the massive room had none of the monitors that littered the rest of the facility. Which meant that she was without guidance from her friend. However, as she reached the other side of the cooling bay, she heard a series of beeps.

Sure enough, another monitor with one simple sign: an arrow pointed down.

And so, she followed the strange signs like she had always wood. And she continued her decent.

Down to sublevel 5, then 6, and finally 7. With each step she took deeper into the facility, the sense that she was being watched grew. It was uncanny, and made Osh take each step with more and more trepidation.

On level 6 she noticed the security cameras following her down the long corridors. She chose to ignore them.

On level 7, she finally found her prize. A balcony, jutting out into a large chamber. In the center, was a supermassive cluster of sophisticated electronics. The doors here were more advanced, like the clean rooms in a Quarian hospital ships. As she approached, the doors opened for her one last time.

An intricate network of lasers crisscrossed her body as she walked down the darkened hallway. The end was pitch black, only accented by the lights of the electronics. She could barely see anything in the room.

And then, she heard a chirp. It was a wet noise, the kind of trill that one would expect from a hanar with allergies. She wasn’t alone in this room. She flicked her suits lights on and swept them around the room.

She almost missed it on her first sweep, the tiny pink head sticking out from one of the mainframe stacks. Six beady eyes stared back at her, constricting in the bright light of the beam. As she jolted her light back to the beam, it began to move out from behind the stack. It was grotesque and purple, and drifted with an eerie tilt, as tentacle like appendage pushed it around the wires and tubing in the stack.

The Covenant aren’t all dead! Panicking, she raises the human pistol, aiming it at the floating creature. She jerks the trigger, and nothing happens. Bosh’tet! She knew this was a bad idea. As she fumbled with the pistol, the creature continued to drift closer, approaching her with surprising speed. Before she could even react, one of the tentacles grabbed the pistol out of her hands. Keelah, how had it gotten so close.

She covered her face and dove for cover after the being snatched the weapon for her hands. When she dared to peak over the boxes she was cowering behind, she saw the creature where it had taken the pistol. One of its pink tentacles split into thousands of fine cilia. Osh watched in awe as it rapidly dismantled the weapon, components and springs being dragged away by tentacles as the creature examined the device. The creature’s head stared down at the weapon in curiosity.

Before Osh could even blink, the cilla were weaving over the dismantled parts, making slight changes to design features that Osh couldn’t even identify. In a second, the creature re-assembled the weapon, and began drifting back towards Osh.

She cowered behind the box, but the creature didn’t point the weapon at her. Instead, it handed it back to her, flicking one last switch before it put it in her hands. Confused by the innocent nature of the creature, Osh grabbed at the pistol, her finger accidentally brushing the trigger. A muffled bang echoed around the room, accompanied by a twang as the bullet ricocheted around the room. With a terrified shriek, the creature retreated behind the central stack, quivering in fear.

Osh threw the pistol to the ground, startled by the sudden discharge.

“No no no no! Come back! I didn’t mean it!” Osh cried for the creature.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I want to be friends. Did you lead me down here?”

At her gentle tone, the head of the creature peaked back around the stack. Seeing the pistol on the floor in the corner, it drifted out into the open, approaching Osh timidly.

Osh couldn’t believe her eyes. What are you?

Nested in the rafters above Triumph’s hangars, Linda wanted to scream. She came here to find her center, somewhere away from the oppressive presence of the aliens. Somewhere she didn’t have to have an eye in the back of her head everywhere she went. Somewhere where there wasn’t a potential threat lurking around every corner.

Linda needed to find her peace amongst the chaos inside her head. During the war, she was always rock solid, the reliable zen-like level-head of the team. She took pride in it, her ability to block out the world around her, and focus on the simple tasks ahead of her. To see the battlefield for what it was. To be able to spot camouflaged elites at 500 meters. To steady her heart and mind to deliver the killing blow. There was a sense of peace that settled over Linda while she was at war. Clarity of mind and battlefield.

But ever since Reach, the peace in her mind had been much harder to come by. But her team needed her, so here she was, trying to find her inner peace, dozens of meters above the deck, Turians at work below her entirely unaware of the Spartan’s presence.

Fred’s whispered words from the bridge echoed in her head, “Get your head straight Spartan. We need your calm. Especially the young ones. Just be strong for a little longer.”

I must be strong. I can’t afford to slip, not now.

She closed her eyes. Instantly, she remembers a searing pain. The phantom splashes of Covenant plasma against her back. The air forced out of her lungs by the unimaginable heat. The plasma continued to burn melting through titanium and flesh. She remembers feeling the heat inside of her, destroying her liver and kidneys. Charring her spine. She remembers not being able to scream, her collapsing lungs unable to move air past her lips.

She remembers the empty cold that followed the searing heat, the blackness reducing her vision to a pinpoint, and then nothing at all. She thought of her mother in that moment. How she used to console her after a nightmare. How she would gently chide Linda after her antics got her in trouble in school. How she always used to kneel in front of Linda and tuck her hair behind her ears with a smile.

“You’ll think you’re alone, but you won’t be...”

Linda hadn’t missed her family since her 7th birthday. She accepted her fate as a Spartan; embraced her role as humanity’s protector. Until that day. Hundreds of miles above Reach’s burning surface, in the surreal minutes where she hung in limbo, both dead and alive, she wanted but one thing. She didn’t want to survive, no, that bridge had already been crossed; she had given her body for the cause. She didn’t wish for Reach’s survival, for its fate too had already been sealed. To her shame, she didn’t even wish for the survival of her friends, as John carried her fading body into the pelican. No.

She wished she could be held in her mother’s arms just one last time. So her mother could console Linda in her final moments.

“…you’re stuck with me, kid, no matter what happens. Got it?”

Her mother was ash on Verent, melted into the glassy sheen carved into its surface by the Covenant. So too was the grave for the child her mother mourned. She wouldn’t have died so young. She could have been there for her mother when they came. Spared her the pain of losing a child. Faced the end together. They wouldn’t have survived. But it would have been easier, the two of them together. Instead, her mother died while she was hundreds of light years away, a woman who managed to stay strong through the burial of her daughter. Linda read about the glassing of Verent in a UNSC bulletin. At the time, she was shocked to find how little it hurt. Yet, years later when she died above Reach, she shed tears for her home.

She slipped beyond the veil, finally free from the bonds of her purpose. She never expected to survive the war. She would die like she did, to give humanity a fighting chance.

Weeks later, she awoke on the surgeon’s table gasping and aching, co*cktails of drugs altering her mind and fueling nightmarish contortions of reality.

It confused her when Dr. Halsey disappeared with Kelly. Wasn’t her whole purpose operations like FIRST STRIKE? To buy humanity more time? It’s what Mendez told them when they were children. It’s the mantra that carried a teenaged Linda through the dark days early in the war. This is why Halsey ripped them from their families. So they could save humanity when nobody else could. Why did Halsey take Kelly?

But Linda had to focus on herself. Even as she stood up on her own feet; once again donned MJOLNIR for FIRST STRIKE; christened another rifle ‘Nornfang’, she could tell that something was different. Something was wrong. At first, it was because she thought she shouldn’t be alive.

So, she tried to trade her life for her comrades once more on Unyielding Hierophant. She never expected to leave the station. Back then, peace of mind came easily, when she was certain that this would be her final day. But John had come back for her, and in a trance, she had fought her way off the station.

She was in a daze during the battle of Earth, her body moving on its own, mowing down Covenant like an automaton. It still wasn’t right, the heart beating in her chest, the feeling in her gut. Her body didn’t feel like her own. She felt like a specter haunting a rotting corpse. This time, she thought it was because humanity was on the threshold of failure. Her brothers and sisters powerless to stop the end. So, she consoled herself with vicious fighting, tried to find solace in the blood she spilt; the reassurance that she was doing all she could.

On the way to Onyx, she felt hope. Her sense of self returned for a fleeting moment. Halsey promised a solution. Maybe if she fought enough, sacrificed enough blood and sweat, enough of her increasingly fragile sanity, she could win. Perhaps whatever hope lay at Onyx could finally put her at peace.

Instead, it was a refuge. A place for Halsey to hide away from the end of the war. And when they emerged, it was all over. The fall of humanity had happened while they hid inside of Onyx. They hadn’t been able to fight. They hadn’t been able to make a difference. They weren’t even allowed to try.

She had failed. Not because she wasn’t strong enough, or because the fight was impossible. No, Linda had failed because was never given the chance to fight.

For Earth and all her colonies. That was why she and her siblings fought. Because they were the only ones who could. It became her identity on Reach, when her childhood vanished in a blur of exercise and training. Her motto during the hardest years of the war, when she was still a young teenager trying to find her place in the violence. Years later, it became her comfort over Reach, when she only wished for her mother’s embrace as she slipped away. After her death, during the battle of Earth, she thought it was the solution to her nightmares and aching soul. Now, she didn’t understand. She was confused.

She squeezed her eyes, trying to shut the swirling thoughts out of her head. She focused on the bustling hangar below her. The Turian workers looked like ants amongst the giant pelicans and strange alien dropships scattered amongst the bays. None of them knew she was here, naturally. She was still a Spartan after all. Her armor, removed so that Halsey could examine the healing of the broad skin graft stretching across her back and inject the immune suppressants helping her body adjust to her new flash cloned kidneys and liver, remained in Triumph’s impromptu Spartan HQ, next to Kelly’s battered Mk. V. At Frederic’s insistence, she didn’t put it back on.

He believed that trusting the xenos would foster friendship and understanding, that hiding beneath MJOLNIR would distance them from the only potential allies they had in the galaxy. Linda wasn’t so sure.

Regardless, her unarmored back pressed against the steel girder behind her, the cold creeping through her thin fatigues. She was certain to keep an MA5 strapped to her chest; her trusty M6 in a holster at her side. Watching the Turians below, she wondered about how quickly things had changed. How quickly humans had gone from dying to gone. Just a few months ago, she would be lining up shots on the aliens below her, identifying squad leads and high value targets. She slung the rifle up to her shoulder. Her finger deftly flicked off the safety. It would be so easy now, to slip into her old familiar patterns. A tiny tug of a trigger and the slaughter would begin. Would the rush of combat finally make her feel like herself?

But she couldn’t. Her comrades were counting on her. She pulled the charging handle of the AR. A gleaming cartridge came flying out, tumbling gracefully into the air. She snatched it with her hand before it could fall the lengthy distance to the floor below.

Below, she saw a Turian. A squad leader. He was experienced, she could tell, instinctively avoiding the most obvious signs of leadership, despite his non-threatening surroundings. But Linda could tell by the way his men looked at him as he talked, how he watched them run maneuvers and drills. His squad was useless. But he was talented. If this was a battle, he would be the first she would kill. With the SRS-99, his head would vanish in a flash of whatever color ran in the Turian’s veins. Even the MA5 could end him quickly, caught unawares.

But, again, she couldn’t. She weighed the round in her hand and gave it one last look.

She threw the cartridge, sending it arcing down towards the hangar floor.

“I love you, Kiddo.”

“I love you too mama!”

Varso’s squad was wrapping up a long day drilling in the hangar. It was slow work, but the group of cast-offs and has-beens were slowly improving. More importantly, they were beginning to form an identity. They belonged to Triumph, not the last ship they served on.

Suddenly, something cracked against his head, before clattering to the floor. He rubbed his smarting crest, while he looked around. He couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He thought maybe one of his squad members had made a prank, but they were all mulling around nearby a Turian dropship. He looked above him, but there were no boxes being lifted overhead that could have dropped anything. He looked down.

By his foot was a single brass cartridge. What in the…?

Chapter 11: Family

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The early days were surreal. I don’t know that any of us could process emerging from the shield world to a world so different from the one we knew. Especially for us IIIs. We never knew a life without war. For us, the Covenant was a constant. But we knew it was not always like that. I vaguely remember my parents talking about the time before the Covenant. They described it as a veritable paradise, where they lived, fell in love, and explored the universe. A time when a young couple from Tribute could settle down and create a new home in the vast wilderness of Kholo. A time without rationing. Without weekly evacuation drills. A time where the newsreels weren’t waiting to announce another mass casualty event. They always made the galaxy seem so large and full of opportunity.

A part of me wishes I had been alive to see this kind of peace, where humans were prospering and growing, where the future was bright, and you could be anything. A part of me wonders if it ever existed beyond the nostalgic reminiscence of my parents’ minds. In her later years, Kelly talked more and more about the insurrection. How she and the other Spartan IIs would be set loose to eradicate entire rebel cells. I think it weighed on her afterwards, the slaughter of her own kind. After Halo, human life was so rare, so precious, I don’t think she could forgive herself for the lives she ended.

In training, we learned about centuries of human strategy and battle tactics. Nearly all of them were from wars where humans stood against themselves. I don’t think the world my parents talked about ever really existed. I think to some extent, as long as humans have lived amongst the stars, there has been violence. It’s a part of who we were.

Its why the first weeks on Triumph were so difficult. We were Spartans. We were warriors. We chose the evolutionary underbelly of the human psyche: violence.

All the creativity, passion, love, and all the other magnificent facets of our nature that made humanity what it was? To become better soldiers, it was beaten out of us. And on Triumph, we suddenly needed to find it again.

Suddenly, they asked us to become human.

Williams, Lucy. Words Unspoken. Translated by Aurelia Savo, Thessia Diplomatic Press, 2255, pp. 257.

//PRO-46328 ‘PORT STANLEY’, Date: 2553/3/2

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/ONI/CINCONI/?!UNKNOWN?!:

***WARNING*** This channel is on an UNRECOGNIZED network.

PRO-46328 ‘PORT STANLEY’ REPORTS SUCCESSFUL EXTRANET TAP

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Greetings Port Stanley. It’s been a while. How was the journey?

NOMINAL

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Well done. Status of the encryption?

SECURE

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Detection status?

SOL EXIT SIGNATURE BELOW DETECTABLE LEVELS AT 7th FLEET POSITIONS

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): And in Sur’Kesh?

UNDETECTED

NETWORK INFILTRATION IN PROGRESS

SIGNIFICANT ENCRYPTION: PROGRESS SLOW

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): How kind of the Asari to install a communications link in our own backyard. Luckily for us, they didn’t exactly design their communications with AI in mind. It’s unfortunate the STG seems more competent. Use the routines I created for you; it should help.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Remain on standby. Monitor this channel. If our link is detected, cover your trail, and return to Sol.

AFFIRMATIVE

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Good luck, Port Stanley.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Office of CINCONI out.

AFFIRMATIVE

//

/

The refined form of the Asari administrator appeared on the viewscreen in the Citadel’s council chambers. Her image wavered with distortions, but both the administrator and her Sydney office could be seen well enough. The audio initially was static, but very quickly resolved into a comprehensible signal.

“…ello? Councilors? Can you hear me?” the diplomat’s voice echoed across the council chambers. The three Councilors had just wrapped up another long day of tedious diplomatic negotiations. Low risk stuff. The kind that really should have been handled by lesser authorities, but somehow found its way to their desks. When people imagine the office of the councilors, they imagine high stakes negotiations and galaxy changing decisions. Unfortunately for the councilors, the job usually wasn’t quite like that.

Which is why the councilors were so eager for the meeting with the joint administrator sent to Earth. Especially Tevos, who was eager to see how different the system looked in the two months since she had led negotiations with the UNSC AI. When she arrived, the system was devastated. Cities were still strewn with the signs of combat, and shipping lanes remained choked with wrecks.

“Yes, administrator, we can hear you. We are all excited to hear your report,” Tevos replied, speaking loudly and precisely, so that her message would be clear over the static.

“Thank you, Councilor Tevos. Yesterday we finished installing the tight beam coms relay in low earth orbit. We’re still working on the calibrations, so you’ll have to excuse the distortions.”

With a diplomatic laugh, Tevos responded jovially, “well, that’s quite all right administrator. What are the recent developments in the Sol system?”

The administrator took a more formal tone as she began her report, “Initial settlement has been proceeding slowly. Using Mars as a staging area has proved valuable; our onboarding program has been successful in introducing the colonists to the nuances and dangers of their new homes. We’ve had our small share of rogues and people who want to go off script, but between the peace officers deployed to the surface, and the 7th fleet in the debris field, we’ve been successful at keeping order in the system.”

“We’re starting to investigate avenues to demobilize UNSC production plants and retool them so that they can create civilian goods. That is unless the council can find a use for the 40,000 BR-55s we make here in Sydney every month.”

Sparatus chuckled while Tevos smiled at the remark.

“We have yet to hear back from the expeditionary forces, but that is to be suspected given the distance they are operating at. We expect them to be arriving at Zeta Doradus in the next couple of days, but we likely won’t receive any news until a few weeks to a month from now,” the administrator reported.

Valern nodded, while Sparatus grunted a dissatisfied note.

“One a more serious note, Black Box approached our delegation this week. He had a request that needed your approval,” the administrator paused, and Tevos nodded, before she continued, “in the absence of living humans, he wanted a citadel team to embark on a mission to help secure the materials required for production of more artificial intelligences.”

The silence lasted a few moments. Sparatus couldn’t believe the audacity of the request.

“What?! It’s lucky we opened diplomatic relations with those AI at all. Now they want us to break our own laws to help them make more?” Sparatus’s voice rose in frustration, “Its exactly what we feared in the first place: self-replicating AI.”

He continued, “I knew this colony proposal was too good to be true. What now? We give in or he points his fleets at our citizens?”

The administrator spoke up, “Black Box made no such demands sir. He simply offered UNSC surveying data of Covenant worlds in exchange. Nothing about the colonists.”

Sparatus grumbled in dissent. Tevos decided to voice her mind, “when I was there, I got the sense that there was division amongst the AI. The intelligence that initially contacted the expeditionary fleet was replaced by Black Box. There seemed to be some level of resentment between the two. Its possible Black Box doesn’t have quite as much power as we think he does. I think it is safe to decline the offer. We cannot allow the UNSC AI to become unchecked so soon. Eventually, we can reexamine the possibility, but it is far too soon.”

Valern had a frown on his face.

“I understand concerns. But think strategically. They have fleets of their own. Eventually, likely they find a way to ‘reproduce’ on their own. Having citadel supervision of procreation process will give us some control. If we don’t help, we stand chance of becoming an outside to a process we can’t stop. And that ignores the value of UNSC survey data. I am in favor of offering assistance.”

Sparatus sighed, “but you don’t know if they will find a process on their own, Valern. This is all speculation. It’s too dangerous, not to mention illegal. No survey data is worth the risk of another uncontrolled AI collective roaming around the galaxy with dreadnoughts. If Tevos is right, and Black Box isn’t threatening our people, we must decline.”

Tevos flashed Valern a conciliatory frown, before turning to the administrator, “relay to Black Box that we must decline assistance due to our laws on AI creation. We apologize, but circ*mstances dictate that response.”

The administrator nodded her head, and the image flickered out of life.

//PRO-46328 ‘PORT STANLEY’, Date: 2553/3/3

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSCBattleNet/ONI/CINCONI/?!UNKNOWN?!:

***WARNING*** This channel is on an UNRECOGNIZED network.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Our request was denied, as expected. Execute OPERATION GENESIS.

AFFIRMATIVE

//

/

//PRO-46328 ‘PORT STANLEY’, Date: 2553/3/3

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: STG/STGSecure/HQChan3:

***WARNING*** This channel is on an UNRECOGNIZED network.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): Who are you? This is a secure Salarian military channel. You are in deep trouble.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): You WILL be found, you will be captured, and you will be interrogated.

ESTABLISHING LINK WITH: BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI)

WAITING

ESTABLISHED

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Greetings from ONI, General Wix. You don’t know me but believe me when I say we have a shared interest.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): So, you’re UNSC. One of the AI then. We won’t take this infiltration lightly.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): You can call me Black Box. And I’m not just UNSC. Office of Naval Intelligence. I have a business proposition.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): Ha. I should have guessed intelligence. Not many groups have the bravado to try the STG. So, tell me, what brings you into our network? Why blow the cover of what could have been a remarkably lucrative data tap?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Because we came to talk, not to spy.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): I’m no hatchling Black Box.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Maybe we poked around for a bit first, who’s to say?

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): That’s more like it. Now, what is your proposition? Before we burn any trace of your connection and scrub our compromised operations.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): We need a clandestine team. We believe you are the best people for the job.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): This wouldn’t have anything to do with your request to the council yesterday, would it?

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): Because you should know that the Salarian Union is proud of our alliance with the Turians and the Asari. You would ask the STG to jeopardize that.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): It’s naturally a completely unrelated request.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Just like how we wish to thank councilor Valern for being the only councilor to vote in our favor yesterday. He seems to always have the common good of the Citadel in mind, doesn’t he?

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): That he does. But we don’t sell our services.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): Of course, a clandestine deployment could be explained by the sudden recovery of valuable intelligence.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): I happen to have a lead on a brand-new class of Salarian ship in Citadel Space.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Incredible capabilities really. I’ve heard it has some remarkable optical stealth modules. Some say it can sit undetected next to a Salarian Union patrol over Sur’Kesh while tapping into secure STG channels.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): Oh?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Rumors have it that the Salarians have made a breakthrough in slipspace technologies. Apparently the slipspace drive in this new Salarian ship rivals state-of-the-art UNSC drives.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): Fascinating. Naturally, the team that found this intel must have been very well equipped.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): Indeed. They brought a whole company with heat-resistant enviro-suits, heavy excavation equipment, and provisions for nine months. They even had some incredibly talented codebreakers.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): Remarkable. Where did they start their mission?

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): In the Oort cloud of the Sol system. There they found another means of transport.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): We’ve heard rumors of fugitives headed there.

GEN Wix, Celeon (STG Command): The STG should send a fleet to try to track them down.

BBX 8995-1 (Office of CINCONI): The UNSC would be happy to let them help.

//

/

Kelly and Linda stacked up against the closed door to the room. Kelly took the front, shotgun at the ready, while Linda’s hand hovered over the door controls behind her. Linda checked the hallway behind them. It was empty. She reached up and tapped Kelly on her shoulder.

Kelly took a deep breath, then held up three fingers, and started lowering them one by one. Linda counted in her head.

…two.

…one.

Kelly’s hand crunched into a fist. GO! Linda slammed her hand into the controls, and Kelly surged forwards through the door, before it could even finish opening, her shotgun sweeping the left half of the room. The flashlight attached to her M90 bathing light up the room, glare bouncing off of the titanium walls. Like lightning, Linda followed with her MA5, and as she passed the threshold, snapped to check the corners on the right side of the room, her light flickering on too. She moved like water, flowing through the room barely making a noise, her boots silent on the titanium floor. The automatic lighting of the room turned on, and the Spartans’ eyes quickly adjusted to the difference in light.

Kelly called out, “clear!”

“…clear.” Linda lowered her MA5.

“Good, let’s get to work.” Kelly said.

Linda looked around at Triumph’s 10th deck weight room. Other than the stacked racks of plates, treadmills, benches, and dumbbells, there was nothing in the room. It was just like every UNSC shipboard gym she had ever seen. It seems the Turians hadn’t been making much use of this room. She supposed that was part of the idea of coming all the way up here.

Kelly moved over to one of the bars and began stacking weights on it.

“You’re paranoid, you know that?” Linda said to Kelly, a smile creeping onto her face.

Kelly shrugged, “maybe. Do you mind if I go first?”

Linda sighed, before responding, “sure.”

“Watch the door for me.”

Linda chuckled as she moved over to one of the benches in the back of the room, and took a seat, turning the light off on her MA5. With her back resting against the wall, she let her rifle rest in her lap, and watched Kelly set up her weights, occasionally looking back over to check that the gym door remained closed. Kelly set her M90 aside before she moved under the bar to start her workout.

The bar sagged over her shoulders as she stood up from underneath it, her shoulders straining under the load of the heavy plates. With a wince of pain, and a quick breath of air, Kelly began squatting the heavy weight.

“How are the burns?” Linda asked, as Kelly powered through another rep, breaking the monotonous rhythm of the creaking of the weights and Kelly’s soft grunts and she lifted the weights.

In between breaths, Kelly retorted, “How’s the back?”

Linda laughed, before replying earnestly, “it’s getting there. Slowly. Halsey switched my immunosuppressants, and I feel a little better.”

“You’re still on those?” Kelly asked, surprised.

“I guess.”

“We’re lucky Halsey is with us,” Kelly mused, exploding up through the bottom of another set, “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Linda made a non-committal sound, before responding, “the same thing we always do. We’d figure it out,” and then, more quietly, “…hell, I don’t even know if we’d even be in this mess without her.”

Kelly, let out a sharp snort, “what mess? Being alive?”

“Maybe? I don’t know.”

There was a long moment where the only sounds were Kelly’s grunts of exertion as she continued her workout. Linda didn’t know how to broach this subject, but she feared what would happen if she didn’t. As if she could read the silence, Kelly flashed a concerned glance over her shoulder. Seeing Linda’s face, she racked the weights with a heavy slam, and turned to face Linda.

“Hey. What’s up?”

Linda, not expecting to be such sudden scrutiny, replied slowly, “I just… when was the last time you thought about your family?”

Kelly was surprised, “my family? It’s been a couple of years, at least,” her face softened, “oh, Linda. Don’t tell me…”

“I’ve just been thinking a lot about things. Since Reach.”

Kelly came over to join Linda on the bench, mulling over her next words, “things like what?”

Linda’s response was careful, “was it all worth it? All that we gave up?”

There were beats of silence as Kelly considered Linda’s question. Linda knew it was a question that every Spartan had asked themselves dozens of times. It might as well be the question for them. At one point, Linda was very confident in her answer. She suspected Kelly still was.

Kelly stared at the bulkhead in front of them as she composed her answer, before finally responding, “I don’t know Linda.”

There was another long pause before Kelly continued, “I do know that neither of us would be alive if it wasn’t for the program. Imber and Verent both got hit hard. And I think I would have joined anyways. I suspect you would have too. We probably would have died alone on some distant world. I don’t know that I could have stood by watching. We were…”

“Yeah, I know. We were the only ones that could. I still believe in that much. I won’t betray their memories by denying that. But there’s something that keeps biting at me. I don’t understand it Kelly,” Linda finished, her desperation creeping into her voice.

Kelly looked at her confused.

“Why Onyx? Why did Halsey take us to Onyx? Why did she take you?

Kelly was quick to answer, confidently, “because she thought there was something important there. And because she needed me, needed us, to help secure it. And she was right. We wouldn’t be here without the shield world.”

Linda, expecting this answer, sighed, looking down at her boots, frustration creeping into her mind. Her voice shook as she responded, “but why then? What could have been more important that FIRST STRIKE, more important than earth?”

“All of our lives, we were training for the moment where we would save humanity. We were fighting in the hopes that one day it would make a difference. We were dying Kelly. I did die.”

Kelly gave Linda a sad look, somewhere between sympathy and pity. Linda deep down knew she was upsetting Kelly, forcing her to think about the things she had compartmentalized. She knew her death had affected more than just her. Reach had left its scars on them all. But she continued, her voice rising in tone.

“And then, right when it finally arrives, the moment of truth, she steals you away.”

Kelly retorts in a gentle, reassuring tone, “because she knew you could get it done. She believed in us, Linda. She believed that you and the others could complete FIRST STRIKE. And you know what? She was right.”

Linda stood up from the bench in frustration, turning away from Kelly and taking a moment to calm down. After a few long breaths, she spoke.

“Grace died.”

She could feel Kelly’s eyes boring into her back. Kelly’s response was careful, unsure of exactly where Linda was headed. Still, she attempted to console the Spartan, “If Grace knew her death would result in all of you surviving, she wouldn’t blink. That’s who she was, Linda. You know that.”

“Grace didn’t die like that,” Linda whispered.

“What do you mean?”


“She didn’t die like that. Like Sam did for you and John. Her death earned nothing. She was ambushed, Kelly. Because she didn’t have anybody watching her back! Because we were stretched too thin!” Linda turned around to face Kelly, who looked back at her with saddened eyes. There was long moment, where Kelly stared up at Linda, but no words were said.

“So you blame me then, for not being there,” Kelly’s tone sank, but her eyes looked straight into Linda’s as if challenging the Spartan to speak her mind.

Linda wouldn’t allow Kelly to blame herself. That wasn’t the point!

“No.”

“Who then? Yourself?”

“No!” her frustration once again getting close to boiling over. At once, Kelly finally seemed to understand. Her eyes locked Linda’s and a scowl crossed her face.

“You blame Halsey.”

Linda doesn’t respond, letting the poisonous statement settle in the room, bleeding into every crack of the abandoned gym. Maybe if she never spoke it herself, it would be easier, the betrayal of the woman who made her who she was. The woman who saved her life. The woman who turned her into a monster.

Kelly wouldn’t let the silence rest, “that’s not fair Linda. She saved us. Taking me. Requesting you and the others got sent to Onyx. Without that shield world, we’re all dead right now.”

Linda snapped; the frustration building in her head finally reaching fever pitch. Kelly didn’t understand. Linda knew she wouldn’t. If there was one thing that Kelly believed in, it was the Spartan program. Her brothers and sisters. And more importantly, the woman who raised them. Linda wanted to yell. To scream her truth where everything on the ship would hear her.

“Why then. Kelly?! After 30 years, she finally grows a conscience? Her augmentations killed half of us. You almost didn’t wake up. She sent us to fight the Covenant. More of us died. She took you from FIRST STRIKE. Grace died. She pulled us from earth. Everybody else died!” Linda exclaimed, her voice raising in volume with each passing phrase.

Kelly responded in kind, her voice rising to meet Linda’s, “and what? You wanted to die like the others? Throw your life away? You’re worth more than that Linda! They died for us. So you and I could live. Don’t waste their sacrifice.”

Reaching a crescendo, Linda snapped, “Maybe I did want to die. Or maybe I wanted to get a chance to fight. All my life, Kelly. That’s how long I fought. I nearly forgot my own mother’s face! After every battle I told myself it would all be worth it. Because we would save humanity. Because we were the only ones we could. I was proud of that, Kelly. Because I knew that we would never give up, not until all the cards were down, and we had fought our last.”

Kelly looked up and said to Linda, “We lost this war a long time before Halsey and I left, Linda.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Linda interjected.

“All I wanted was a chance. I dedicated my life to this cause Kelly, all I wanted was a chance to see it through. That was my purpose. To be there in the end. That was what would make it all worth it. All the long nights on Reach. All our friends who died. The abandonment of the woman I would have become. So I could say I did all that I could. And right then, the final moment had finally come. And she lied. So she could save her…her test subjects!” Linda’s frustration boiled into rage, all the turmoil she had kept contained the last six months exploding out into the world. Linda hated how good it felt to rant and rave. To shout her frustrations into the empty room.

“She destroyed our lives, Kelly, back when we were 6. Then, she gave us a purpose. That purpose became my life, my mantra. I lived by it. And then she took that away from me too.”

Kelly shook her head, whether in denial or disappointment, Linda wasn’t sure.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t want to be by John’s side in the end. You know as well as I do that he found a way to get mixed up in whatever happened. He’s just lucky that way. Don’t pretend you wouldn’t have rather died fighting with him than live in this damned empty galaxy,” bringing John into this was dirty, Linda knew. Kelly’s oldest friend, and closest ally. She turned away from Kelly, not wanting to see the effect of her words on the Spartan.

She didn’t hear anything. Kelly was silent for a long time. When she did speak, she spoke carefully, weighing every word.

She said, “I know that no matter where John was in the end, he would have wanted all of us to survive. Just like Grace, Sam, Will, Kurt, and everybody else. That if given a choice, he would have ordered me to go to Onyx. Of course, I wanted to be there with them. Wherever there was. But that wasn’t my choice.”

“We can’t throw away what they gave us, Linda. For the first time in our lives, we don’t have to fight.”

“At what cost, Kelly. What’s left?” Linda turned back to Kelly.

“I don’t know.”

All eight Spartans were gathered in the triage area on Triumph’s upper medical deck. While initially the survivors had come here to get medical attention out of the way of alien eyes, the area had quickly become the headquarters of human presence on Triumph. The examination benches now had five sets of SPI arranged carefully on them, the joints and camouflage modules clean and tidy after maintenance.

Across the room, against the wall, the three sets of MJOLNIR were hanging from makeshift racks. Kelly’s Mk V was opened, and the plasma scorched modules had been carefully removed and taken aside. Lose wiring and cooling channels hung from the armor, and the miniaturized fusion reactor in the back had been shut down for the foreseeable future. The damage was worse than they had thought at first. The shield generator, the shining feature of the Mk. V’s upgrades, had proven to be vulnerable to heat buildups under sustained fire. Kelly’s was borderline dysfunctional, the shield strength just a fraction of its original power.

Which said nothing of the half-dozen other systems that had started failing her over the course of the Reach and Onyx campaigns. Mk. V was leaps and bounds above the older Mk. IV, but right now Kelly would take just about anything if it would allow her to get back into action.

Kelly herself sat near Linda next to the three suits of MJOLNIR. Across from them, leaning against the edges of the table, were the three teenaged gamma company survivors. When she looked at them, she was always shaken by their youthful faces. They looked young, too young. Of course, Kelly had been fighting at their age, but for some reason, the gamma company Spartans seemed younger than her comrades ever had. I’m getting old. They made Kelly uncomfortable, their augmentations a ticking time bomb that had her looking over her shoulder whenever she was around the three. Mark had assured her that the anti-psychotic smoothers kept them perfectly stable. I didn’t help Kelly’s peace of mind.

Tom and Lucy, the two beta company Spartans, sat together, passing worried glances around the room. The two often seemed inseparable, and Tom seemed to understand the mute Lucy in a way nobody else could. Kelly could see the scars operation TORPEDO had left on the two. Even after spending years out of combat training gamma company, they always kept a dangerous edge to them, ready to rise and fight once more when their time came.

In the front of the room, Fred stood in front of them all, with Mendez to his right. Halsey wasn’t at the meeting, too engrossed while working in her lab, the former surgical ward. The five pods of team katana were with her, but nobody had been able to figure how to release the Spartans from their forerunner imprisonment. Kelly wasn’t sure where the engineer currently was, as Tom and Lucy had been taking turns showing it around the hundreds of systems on the ship. It was probably mulling over a power converter right now. At the front of the room, both Mendez and Fred had grim expressions on their faces.

That’s not good. Kelly still hadn’t heard what this meeting was for, she and Linda had just been recalled from their workout. Kelly looked at Linda. Her face was flat, emotionless. She looked every bit the killer that could weave a 14.5mm round through the tiniest of gaps. The killer that had tallied the most confirmed sniper kills in human history. Had Kelly not just finished talking with her, she wouldn’t know that anything was bubbling up inside the Spartan. Kelly worried about Linda. She had never seen the woman like this, not in the more than three decades they had known each other. She knew firsthand the dark places a Spartan could go to when they lost sight of themselves.

Kelly never thought it could happen to Linda.

Fred cleared his throat, and immediately the Spartans all focused on him.

“Alright team. This isn’t going to be easy,” he said, and Kelly’s heart dropped.

“Here’s the situation. Somebody fired a Halo, and we think we know where, somewhere in the Coelest system. The blast caught some Citadel colonies. The Turian fleet around us was dispatched to find the source of the pulse. They stumbled on earth and left with the remains of 5th fleet to track down Halo. Then, they found us.”

They all knew the story by now, passed around from Spartan to Spartan, idle chatter picked up from listening to the xenos around them. Kelly didn’t trust the Turians, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t gather intel from them.

Fred continued, “We’re going to help the Turians find Halo and secure it. Halo is too dangerous to go unchecked. The pulse should have eradicated any flood that might have been released on the ring, but there will still be samples in cold storage. Our team will be there to ensure that the flood doesn’t escape, and that the ring won’t activate again.”

Everybody knew the mission. Kelly looked at the room at the steely faces from the three different classes of Spartans. It was more of the same. Get rescued, get back to work. She was ready.

But Fred wasn’t done.

“Unfortunately, that’s not all. We have a developing situation on the home front too. The creation of AI is illegal in citadel space,” murmurs filled the room, “but, so far, the citadel government has been willing to turn a blind eye to our constructs.”

“They are keeping the presence of AI in the UNSC tightly under wraps. A military secret. Which means that the general populace doesn’t know we’re gone. They have been told that a small contingent of humans survived the pulse and are still at the controls of the UEG.”

“That lie won’t last long,” Kelly said, with a solemn nod of agreement from Fred.

“Which is why we’re sending a team back to keep things under control.”

An awkward silence filled the room. Kelly knew what everybody was thinking, they were all Spartans at heart after all. Everybody wanted to face the danger with their comrades. Nobody wanted to be left behind. But as Fred continued, it became increasingly clear that that was impossible.

“Halliday and Odysseus fear there is a growing power struggle between the AI they left behind in Sol. An ONI AI by the name of Black Box hid information about Halo from the 5th fleet AI. They believe he’s trying to make a play for leadership of the Sol system. They left behind elements of the 7th fleet, but it has become clear that Black Box is multiple steps ahead of everybody else.”

“Our team’s mission in Sol is twofold. We aren’t taking sides here. We just want to make sure that power stays balanced between the factions. We want collaboration, not warfare. We’re also going to be the public facing diplomatic front of the UEG. It’s not what we trained to do, but it’s what we’re needed for.”

Diplomacy had never been Kelly’s strong suit. Hell, it had never been any of their strong suits. Her only experiences with diplomacy came from the muzzle of rifle. But, aside from Mendez, she couldn’t think of anybody who had that kind of experience. Maybe Halsey? But she would need to help at Halo.

Frederic went ahead into the part of the briefing that everybody knew was coming. The part Kelly feared. She spared a glance and Linda, whose stoic façade hadn’t broken.

“These teams are final Spartans. I will lead blue team, heading back to Sol. I’m taking one Spartan from each class with me, as well as Chief Petty Officer Mendez.”

Fred began listing names.

“Olivia,” the dark-skinned girl lifted her head, surprised to hear her own name. She made perfect sense, easily the most composed and diplomatic of the gamma company Spartans. She had quickly endeared herself to Kelly and was a genuine pleasure to be around. In another life, maybe she would have ended up a diplomat.

“Tom,” the beta company Spartan had been steeling himself for this moment from the beginning of the briefing. With Lucy’s condition, her talents would be wasted in a diplomatic setting. She was a fearsome fighter, and her persistence would be an asset on the Halo team, but her muteness would cause difficulty communicating in a setting full of flowery speech and translators. She would have to stay with the fleet, at least until they found a way to aid her communication with the Xenos. Spartan hand signals wouldn’t cut it outside of their small group. Tom and Lucy looked at each other and shared a quick moment. Tom’s eyes were laced with worry, but Lucy’s eyes took on a sheen of determination, and quickly dismissed his concerns with a simple thumbs up.

Mendez, Fred, Tom, and Olivia. That was a dynamic team, composed of probably the best communicators from each class. They were as competent a group of negotiators as you could get out of a gaggle of Spartans. Kelly thanked the stars that she would be headed to Halo. She was worried what could happen if she left Linda alone right now. She didn’t let her walls down often, and certainly wouldn’t around any of the SIIIs. Not yet at least. And Fred was already swamped with the difficult task of keeping the group together after the end of the world. Linda wouldn’t have gone to him. Which left her.

“and, Kelly.”

What?

“Linda will lead red team to Halo, where they will secure the ring and ensure containment of any flood.”

Kelly was too busy stammering out a response to hear the rest.

“…sir!” Was all she could manage.

“Yes?”

“Permission to go with red team? You’re already a II, why do you need another?”

It didn’t make sense to Kelly. She had never been the diplomatic type. If fact, she hated the Turians. And Fred knew it too. She was a walking diplomatic incident. She could barely handle being on the same ship as the Turians, much less talking to them as equals. Not to mention the uncanny chill that ran down her spine whenever she saw that blue woman. The less she had to coexist with them the better. She belonged on the battlefield. At Halo, she could focus on the mission, but in Sol…

“Denied, petty officer. As I said, these assignments are final.”

Kelly looked towards Linda. The Spartan had flinched at the initial news, but quickly had her trademark calm settling into her face.

“Why, sir?”

Fred co*cked his head as Kelly refused to take no for an answer.

“Because you don’t have MJOLNIR, Kelly. You expect me to send you into a sector where we fear the presence of the flood without proper protection?”

Fred looked over to where Kelly’s Mk V hung in the corner, and Kelly followed his gaze. It was bad, Kelly knew that much. And in its current state, it wouldn’t do her much good on the battlefield. But surely this wasn’t her only option, to be sidelined due to equipment failure of all things.

“Lend me yours, sir. You won’t need it,” Kelly said. It was desperate, she knew, because…


“You know as well as I do that, we don’t have the tools to fit MJOLNIR here,” …. of that. Kelly knew it, Fred knew it, and there was nothing she could do. She wasn’t trained on SPI, and with her MJOLNIR out of commission, she wouldn’t be protected if they encountered the flood. Right when she was about to make one final plea, she felt Linda’s hand on her shoulder.

Kelly’s words caught in her throat. Linda’s face was calm, and her eyes had hardened into a steely visage. She looked at Kelly, her eyes ordering her to stop, to let it go. Kelly supposed she didn’t have a choice in the end.

Fred looked at her with a consoling glance, finishing; “we’ll take Halsey’s administrator’s codes with us and see if we can track down a Mk VI in Seongnam. I’m sorry Kelly, but we don’t have a choice.”

Defeated, she replied, “yes sir,” flashing one final look at Linda.

“Any other concerns?”

Across the room, Ash raised his hand.

“Sir, do we have any updates on our smoother situation?”

If there was one thing that Kelly had learned about the gamma company Spartan, it was that Ash was an exceedingly practical young man. He always seemed to see the larger picture and managed to stay focused on only the most essential details.

“We’ve confirmed with Halliday and Odysseus, we can’t produce the smoothers here in the fleet,” Frederic answered. The smoothers made Kelly uneasy. The powerful mix of anti-psychotic medication were necessary to keep the gamma Spartans levelheaded. All because Ackerson decided that his Spartan IIIs weren’t quite dangerous enough. He decided to push the augmentations just one step further. It made the gammas more fearsome than any before them in combat, especially when wounded. Kelly had seen it firsthand. Without their smoothers, the Spartans would slowly begin a decent into insanity. It would start slowly, with irritability and paranoia. The way Olivia described it to her, once symptoms started, they would quickly become mission ineffective, not long before hallucinations set in and the Spartans became truly dangerous.

Kelly and blue team had, on multiple occasions, been cut off from UNSC supply lines for months or more at a time. Had she had the augmentations of the gamma company Spartans, she wasn’t sure she ever would have made it home from some of those missions. A Spartan needed a level head. Without that, they might as well just be a Brute.

Still, leave it to Ash to be thinking about months in the future. Since Onyx was their training facility, the Spartans had entered the shield world with a full complement of smoother doses. But eventually, they will run out, especially if they can’t produce their own onboard the fleet.

Ash apparently had a better grasp of the situation than Kelly did.

“Sir, we’re starting to run low. We’ve got a week left for each of us. If we ration, we can stretch it to two. Can I make a suggestion?”

Frederic nodded, curious as to what the Spartan was about to recommend. Ash proceeded, “Mark and I want to give our smoother reserves to Olivia. The last thing blue team needs is a Spartan going off the rails during diplomatic negotiations. Having extra reserves will give you plenty of time to source more.”

“I need you two combat effective for when Triumph reaches Halo, Ash. I’m already taking half of our manpower back to Sol.”

“Of course, sir. That’s why we can use Triumph’s cryo-pods. It’s a long trip to Coelest, sir. If Mark and I go into cryo, we should be fresh when we arrive at Halo. We’ll be combat effective for a few weeks after that. When we start to slip, we can go right back into cryo.”

It all made sense if everything went to plan. Unfortunately, things rarely did. Still, Kelly supposed it was better than the alternative. If it meant that Kelly didn’t have to be watching over her shoulder when Olivia was running low, she would take it. Still, it left pretty thin margins for the Halo team. If Mark and Ash were out of the picture, it would just be Linda and Lucy. A ferocious duo if ever there was one, but still, only two Spartans, only one of which had MJOLNIR.

Fred turned to Linda, who, as red team’s leader, would have to deal with the two Spartans if they started showing signs, “Well, Linda? Is that acceptable?”

Linda mulled it over for a time, her analytical gaze focused on the trio of gammas across the room. Kelly didn’t expect to be able to read anything in Linda’s expression; the Spartan’s face was notoriously statuesque when she was thinking. And true to her reputation, as Linda’s green eyes idly examined the gammas, Kelly couldn’t even guess as to what she was thinking.

Her answer surprised Kelly: “okay.”

Beyond that, she didn’t say anything else. Eventually Fred stepped into the final silence to break up the silence.

“Okay. You have your orders Spartans. Canberra and her escorts leave for Sol tomorrow at 1400. A pelican will be waiting for us in the hangar at 0600, meaning blue team needs to be geared up and ready to move by 0500. Is that clear?”

The chorus echoed across the room, “yes, sir!”

The doors to the operating theater slid open with a hiss as Mendez walked into the room. On the operating table was one of the shielding modules from Kelly’s MJOLNIR, while Dr. Halsey prodded at it with a miniaturized soldering torch. Tends to List was floating behind her, watching carefully over her shoulder as the woman prodded at the shield emitter. Every so often the engineer would reach a long tentacle around Halsey and poke at one of the microscopic components in the module. The work was slow; even the engineer’s near omniscient knowledge of technological systems apparently wasn’t much help. The doctor had been working on the module Halsey wore a pair of magnifying goggles, so that she could work on the tiny components, and her graying hair was tied back behind her head. It was the most hands-on Mendez had seen her since the early days of the Spartan-II program.

Halsey did look up as he entered the room, not that he expected her to. Halsey had a remarkable ability to engross herself in her work when difficult conversations were well overdue. Mendez cleared his throat. Halsey didn’t look up.

“The meeting is over, it’s decided. I’ll be leaving tomorrow with our team,” he said. Halsey still gave no indication of having heard him. A burst of sparks flew out of the emitter, showering over the table before lazy gray smoke rose from the component.

“Kelly wasn’t too happy to be going with us,” he ventured, still testing Halsey for a reaction.

“That MJOLNIR might have seen its last battle. Fred wants to find her a new set in Seongnam.”

With an exasperated sigh, Halsey put down her tools and switched off the power to the shielding module. She flipped the goggles up off her face and turned to Mendez. The last week seemed to have taken years from the older woman. Deep bags had formed under her bloodshot eyes, and Mendez could swear he had seen her usually steady hand quiver as she stepped away from the shielding module. Behind her tends to swift took the moment to rush over and reexamine the progress being made of the shielding module.

Her tone was cold, “Are you trying to tell me something Franklin?”

“Just that you shouldn’t be working yourself so hard. Kelly doesn’t need it,” Mendez said. Halsey glared at him. The look bordered between annoyance and rebellion, like a teenager caught sneaking out at night, and seemed completely out of place on the doctor’s face.

“And what if you don’t find another set at Seongnam? Mk. VI wasn’t exactly cheap, you know.” Halsey was dancing around the real issue, like she always did. Mendez knew there was other work the doctor could be doing. Any number of Triumph’s systems had been far too long without trained maintenance. There were thousands of new pieces of technology, both from the shield world and the strange new aliens that needed integration with UNSC tech. But all those jobs required interaction either with the aliens or his Spartan IIIs and didn’t allow Halsey to remain holed up in the operating theater alone but for the engineer.

Mendez just watched for a moment, before asking, “how are you doing?”

He had meant it as an olive branch, but Halsey clearly didn’t see it that way.

“It’s going slowly. Even more slowly if you keep interrupting my work,” she snarked back.

“That’s not what I meant. We’re all sorry about your daughter. Especially the IIs. It can’t be easy.”

Her reaction was first one of surprise, and then one of renewed grief. Halsey didn’t say anything as she turned to lean against the operating table. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her head in her palms. Mendez watched on in pity. Mendez had known about her pregnancy back during the Spartan II days. It wasn’t good timing, in the final phases of the program. Halsey had to split her time between finalizing procedures for the impending augmentations and caring for her unborn child.

Halsey’s baby was born on February 28th, 2525. She was very private about it, but there were congratulations around the facility. Nine days later, Halsey’s augmentations would kill 30 of the children he had shaped into soldiers, and cripple 12 more.

It was a day that Mendez would never forget. He still wasn’t sure how Ackerson had convinced him to sign on to the Spartan III program. He supposed the Covenant had made them all desperate.

He still wasn’t sure how Halsey could raise a child of her own. He knew he never could. He committed unspeakable crimes against a group of the most brilliant, most inspiring children in the galaxy. He signed up to repeat the same horrors to 300 more children, in the name of stopping the covenant. Then when that wasn’t enough, another 300, and then another. Thirty years. That was the age gap between the SIIs and the gamma company SIIIs. For thirty years, his business was raising child soldiers.

He could still remember Kelly’s defiant face her first day in the facility, before it was beaten out of her by her trainers. Or how Fred had managed to befriend half the class in a single day. How Lucy used to tell the most wonderful stories late at night, before the trainers would punish her.

He knew he would never trust himself with another child, one of his own. He had seen what his hands could do. Seen how a six-year-old jolted back from a cattle prod. He still sometimes heard their screams in his dreams. If there was a Hell, he would be there. And Halsey had started it all. And he had been complicit; had gone on to repeat his sins thrice more.

Halsey was looking back at him now, tears forming in the very corners of her eyes.

“…thank you.”

He gave her a pitying smile, before saying, “all I’m saying is don’t work yourself to death.”

Halsey scoffed, before walking past Mendez to a workstation on the wall behind him.

“Your concern is noted…” she dismissed in a way that only Halsey could, with the careful working of a practicing doctor but the laser-focus of an ONI contractor.

“But my work is needed now more than ever. Behold,” as she finished her keystroke, a complex figure appeared on the monitor above their heads. Mendez could recognize the chains of letters that made up a genome, the millions of characteristics that went into a human being. A complex diagram of a strand of DNA was color coded in the corner. He recognized the service number at the top of the page. It was Lucy’s. With another keystroke, the figure flashed 7 other profiles before breaking into a depiction of thousands of separate combinations. He couldn’t understand it.

An uneasy feeling settled in his gut.

“What is this?”

“Our salvation Franklin. The future of the human race,” Halsey’s voice was proud, finally peeking through the shroud of restlessness and grief that had been clouding her mind.

“What?” The pit in Mendez’ stomach grew heavier with every passing moment. He had a suspicion, but he had never allowed himself to believe it.

“30,000 permutations spanning seven generations, carefully simulated on a case-by-case basis. Genetic diversity is our single greatest ally. My Spartans were selected for their strong genetic profiles. Depending on just how many compromises Ackerson made for your Spartans, it may help set back the onset of autosomal disorders.”

His eyes watched the scrolling data in horror. How couldn’t she see it? Did she not know? Was she that wrapped up in her own domain, too caught up in the possible and impossible to worry about the right and wrong? Or had they already crossed that bridge a long time ago? He wanted to vomit. Mendez couldn’t do this.

“Doctor…” he pleaded.

“…of course, it will only buy us time. Hopefully by then, they will have managed to find some way to mitigate the effects of inbreeding. With Citadel assistance, who knows what could happen. If only we had been allowed to invest in slow-process cloning. It may have well been our savior…”

Halsey had always seemed to care about her Spartans, despite her cold demeanor. Well, some of them at least. Nobody could claim that Halsey didn’t play favorites. Still, somewhere inside, Mendez knew she cared. It was why she poured so much time and energy into MJOLNIR. To keep her creations safe. So how couldn’t she know?

“Halsey…”

“…time is of the essence. Let’s just hope that Kelly and Linda are still firing on all cylinders. Lord knows what Ackerson did to Olivia…”

Like pieces of meat. Like automatons. She really didn’t understand. She had been a mother, how couldn’t she? She should know even better than him. In times like these did she really see beyond science? See beyond her goals? There was a disconnect in Mendez’s mind. One moment she cared, whisked her children away to Onyx to protect them from the end of the world. The next moment, she was talking about this. How?

“Catherine.”

She stopped, pausing with a confused expression, as if she didn’t know what she was doing.

“You can’t do this.”

She seemed taken aback by Mendez’s objection, “of course we can. They’re all intact. My augmentations didn’t change that. Neither for the males. Reduced libido maybe, but certainly still capable of conception.”

His eyes were wide with horror. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He said it again, this time as an ultimatum.

“You can’t do this to them.”

Halsey wheeled around from where she was working, fury in her eyes, “in case you haven’t noticed, Chief Petty Officer, we’re probably the single most endangered species in this galaxy. If we don’t do anything, we’re it. We’ve sacrificed too much to give up now. They have sacrificed too much to give up now. Do you want to just give up? Let humanity go out with a whimper?”

She was shouting now, weeks of frustration and sleepless work finally coming to a head.

“Do you think I did this all for fun Mendez? Do you think I enjoyed watching my children on the operating table? Humanity needed the next step. A new evolution. To save ourselves from the insurrection, the Covenant. Humanity needed my Spartans. It was a necessary evil.”

A disgusted sneer formed on Mendez’s face. He shouted back at her, slamming his fist on the operating table, “they weren’t your children! Pick a side Catherine! Be their mother or be the heartless monster who carved them up. I’m sick of this charade.”

Halsey, indignant, sneered in response, “so high and mighty Franklin. You were with me every step of the way. You agreed it was necessary. The project wouldn’t have happened without you. I stopped at 75. You trained another 900. Who’s really the monster here?”

Mendez was quiet for a long moment. It was different somehow, in his mind. When he spoke, he was quiet, decades of regret hidden in his voice, “You’re right. I thought they were the only way we could save ourselves. I thought the Spartans were the only way out of this damned war. The war is over. This is different.”

“The war just started Mendez. The fight for our survival is just beginning. We’ve asked them to do so much. We’ve asked them to fight. We asked them to give up their families,” her tone was serious, and her piercing blue eyes bored into Mendez, “and now, when all that’s left to do is what come naturally, what humans have been doing for millions of years, you draw the line.”

Images of four different classes of trainees flashed in his heads. He remembered how quickly the crying stopped at night, once the Spartans realized that nobody was there to console them.

“This isn’t their duty,” Mendez pleaded, “they’ve done all you asked of them. Don’t ask them to do this.”

“Their duty is to save humanity. They’ve always been the only ones who could. Now more than ever,” Halsey said, as her tone dropped back into the cold calculated rhythm that Mendez was more accustomed to.

“If I asked them, you know they would do it.”

Something about Halsey’s smug determination sent Mendez over the edge. After all this time, she still didn’t seem to understand just quite what they had taken away from the Spartans.

His tone was iron, the harsh language causing Tends to List careening for cover across the room, “And that, Doctor, is why you shouldn’t even be asking that question. They were normal kids once. Brilliant, creative, and resilient kids. But that’s not what you and Ackerson wanted Doctor. You wanted perfect soldiers,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger at the doctor, “So we beat it all out of them. Damn near everything that made them human. Perfect soldiers don’t dream about starting a family. Perfect soldiers don’t explore their sexuality. Perfect soldiers compartmentalize. Perfect soldiers never show weakness. Perfect soldiers are willing to sacrifice everything to save humanity.”

“And you know what? We weren’t perfect. We couldn’t drive out everything, no matter how many times they were disciplined. I can still see slivers of what they could have been, had it not been for us. Parts of them that they were too strong to give up.”

Halsey was quieter now. Mendez knew she had seen it too, the fragments of personality and identity that lay buried in every Spartan.

“The war was their life, Catherine. They don’t even know who they are without a rifle in their hands. We made damn well certain of that. For the first time in their lives, they have a chance to figure out who they really are. They have a chance to search for what we took from them.”

His voice shook, stammering over his words, but building in intensity “and you want them to all become mothers and fathers for the good of humanity. Cattle for the grand plan. Bear children with when they don’t even know what it means to be human? When they haven’t even had a chance to consider a family? There’s more to a human life than flesh and chemistry, Doctor. Miranda should have taught you that. I won’t let you do it.”

“Or what, you’ll shoot me?” Halsey scoffed.

“Maybe I will.”

Halsey returned a challenging glare.

“And what about humanity? You’ll condemn our entire species to death to protect our Spartans? That bridge was crossed a long time ago Franklin. We did it for the greater good of humanity. We knew it. They knew it. So did Miranda,” she said, the stress and anguish still clear in the wrinkled lines of her face.

Mendez simply shook his head.

“You don’t understand it do you? You’re so caught up in your own grief, and your own work, you can’t see the world around you. Humanity is dead. How many languages will never be spoken again? How many cultures have been erased? The hundreds of thousands of years of history and development, it’s all gone.”

“The AI will all the records,” Halsey interjected.

“You can’t learn culture from a book. Face it. Humanity is now a handful of career soldiers, and a woman who can’t seem to decide if she wants to be a mother or a martyr. Can any of us really claim to be human?”

From where she leaned against the workstation, Halsey didn’t say much more. The argument had poisoned the air, as if a heavy fog had settled into the room. Slowly the forgotten responsibilities came trickling back to him, all the preparations they needed to make before their departure tomorrow. Feeling the silence, he moved over to the door, leaving the doctor some time alone to think over what he had said. For his part, his head was still spinning, trying to solve the puzzle that was Catherine Halsey.

The exit to the operating theater slid open with a hiss. As he stepped through the threshold, Halsey called out to him.

“Over two hundred thousand years of human history Franklin, and you want to be the one to end it. What gives you the right?”

Mendez paused, looking back at Halsey over his shoulder.

“We’re both going to hell, Catherine. I’m just trying to salvage what’s left.”

Warships never truly slept. Crews rotated in and out, resting and working, but there was always a flurry of commotion. A buzz, like insects in a hive. Still, as Victus and his guards stood in the hangar watching Frederic and his team prepare to depart Triumph, he remarked at the peacefulness of the moment.

They had intentionally chosen a quiet time for their departure; there was no need to pack the bay with observers hoping to catch a glimpse of the humans. Despite the skeleton crew inhabiting Triumph, the humans had seemed to make themselves scarce. Victus himself hadn’t seen them outside of scheduled strategy meetings. He knew, naturally, where they had set up their temporary headquarters. But outside of that, the humans were seldom seen on their own vessel. He supposed it made things easy.

The lieutenant loaded a box of human rations, left over from the previous inhabitants of Triumph, into the black of the pelican, while the grizzled Mendez secured it with hooks and straps. Frederic, or Fred, as Victus had soon learned he preferred to be called, had donned his powerful MJOLNIR armor, and as a result, he moved with a flowing grace and power that didn’t seem to fit his massive frame.

The younger Spartans, the ones he hadn’t seen since they arrived on the vessel, were also back in their armor, helping to carry supplies. They were an even more secretive group. While the trio of older Spartans had occasionally come to the bridge to update the captain on their plans, and talk strategy and direction, the five younger Spartans hadn’t made any effort to get to meet the captain and the crew.

The lone exception amongst the departing humans was Kelly, who instead had donned ODST battle gear stolen from Triumph’s armory to protect her burn laced body. Victus remembered first seeing the gristly reminder of their conflict with the Covenant, that day on Triumph’s bridge. As a younger officer, he had seen his fair share of battlefield injuries. It was inevitable, and part of his duty as a Turian. Still, the sight of the marks on her skin churned his stomach.

And still, the Spartan seemed to move as if she was unhindered by her injury, a practiced measure with every movement she made.

A signal from Kelly caused Fred to walk over to Victus and his group, while the others finally embarked the Pelican.

“Its time,” he said, before looking at Victus and removing his helmet, “Captain, it’s been an honor. Keep my Spartans safe.”

He extended an armored hand and gingerly shook the Turian captain’s hand. He looked to the captain’s right and shared a knowing look with Linda.

“Good luck, petty officer.”

“Of course, sir.

Victus had been taken aback when the lieutenant had first approached him with his plans. He had recognized the perilous stance of the citadel council; without an appearance from a human in the Sol system, questions were going to start being asked. And revealing the existence of UNSC AI would cause a scandal the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades. As such, it wasn’t a surprise when Admiral Tibril greenlit the split of the human group. It would give the interim Sol administration a figurehead, living humans to parade in front of the eager cameras of the galactic press. It was a cruel fate for a band of soldiers. But they didn’t have much of a choice.

The Spartans had another reason for returning home, of course, one that worried Victus more. The brewing power struggle between the AI in the Sol system. To Victus and the other Turian captains, the AI had seemed a united front. But now, he could see the cracks he missed. The dissent and deceptions of military secrecy and a toppling hierarchy. He was grateful he had another mission to focus on. For now, he needed to concentrate his effort on Halo. The weapon was too dangerous to leave abandoned; that much had already been proven.

And not to mention the flood. He shuddered slightly thinking about what was to come. He looked to his right, at the Spartan that had been left behind to lead the UNSC Halo team, now his colleague. The woman he would be expected to cooperate with to secure the galactic threat.

Victus was uneasy. He had watched the woman intently during their meeting, and later when she outlined the preliminary plans of action for the voyage. From what he could tell, she was a competent tactician, but had none of the charisma of her predecessor. Fred had a way of making the Turian crew feel comfortable, defusing the tension that arose between the humans and the Turians.

In his meeting with Linda after her assignment to team leader, Victus had been left feeling uncomfortable; the Spartan’s quiet demeanor and empty stare had struck him as borderline psychopathic. She somehow seemed ambivalent about being left behind. Her answers to his questions were short and succinct; never letting on more than she needed to. Her gaunt face, lined at the corners of her eyes by years of stress, always left Victus unsettled. She could kill, that much he was sure of. Beyond that, he was unsure.

She stood next to him watching Fred board the pelican. As always, her green eyes betrayed nothing, they were glassy, and the Spartan seemed to be watching everything and nothing at the same time. This mission had him worried. Fred seemed to take with all the Spartans that had seemed to take well to the strange circ*mstances aboard. It made sense when any misstep could snowball into a major diplomatic incident. But it still left Victus worried.

A Spartan that couldn’t speak, and two more that would have to be put on ice before they lost their minds. A scientist with more black ink in her ledger than an STG veteran. All headed by a junior NCO with no people skills trying to do an officer’s job. That wasn’t even mentioning the state of his ground team, castoffs from the rest of the expeditionary fleet. And it was up to them to stop a weapon that could kill the galaxy and a potential parasite outbreak. This had always promised to be an interesting command. Victus guessed it was living up to its potential.

As the roar of the pelican filled the hangar, he looked over the cast of humans watching their comrades departing.

As the pelican glided into the empty abyss beyond the hangar doors, Victus couldn’t help but think that things were just getting started.

Notes:

100,000 words! Never thought I'd get here, but we've still got more to go. Thanks for sticking around for the ride!

Chapter 12: Innocence

Chapter Text

We put Ash and Mark into cryo not long after we entered slipspace. To them, the months-long journey was nearly instantaneous. They went to sleep and awoke not much later, with nothing but the stinging itch of cryosleep to mark the elapsed time. For us, it was a different story. Three humans, one engineer. On a ship meant to house thousands.

Halsey still didn’t like me. That much I knew. I may have been mute, but I wasn’t stupid. I could hear the whispered arguments with Mendez on Onyx. The ways she looked at us when she thought we couldn’t tell. Whether it was because we were Ackerson’s brainchild, or because of my condition, I could never quite pin down. She would end up spending most of her time in the medical bay anyways, and I was more than happy to leave her there. Linda told me that Halsey’s daughter was killed. I didn’t know how to feel after that.

With the Halsey in the med-bay, I spent most of my time prowling the decks of Triumph, especially the ones the Turians didn’t roam. Linda tried, but even I could tell that her heart wasn’t in it. She was withdrawn, even more than she had been on Onyx. The fire was back in her eyes, but her monk-like attitude didn’t make for good conversation. Not that I’m one to talk. She spent much of her time in meetings with Victus and the staff of Triumph, coordinating with Tibril and Kilware about Halo. Her orders to me were always short and succinct. I’m not sure a wasted word passed between us for the length of the journey.

As a result, I spent nearly all my time wandering the halls with Tends to List. It was nice, in a way, to have a companion that didn’t judge. Who didn’t pity me for my voice. With Tends to List I didn’t have to worry about any of it. He would click and chirp at me, occasionally writing something on my PDA with a wave of a tentacle. It was nice. Tom and I could take on the world together. But in his absence, it was nice to have a distraction. I grew close to List, at least as close as one can come to a biological supercomputer. If Tom was a brother, List would become a friend.

Williams, Lucy. Words Unspoken. Translated by Aurelia Savo, Thessia Diplomatic Press, 2255, pp. 261.

It had been days since Osh’Leih nar Teslaya had met the strange creature. Since, she had returned to the surface only a couple of times, each time to try and track down food and water for herself. The creature, after she had made clear her intentions, had revealed an elevator to her, and when she stepped on it, it rocketed her towards the surface. As a fugitive, she knew it was dangerous. The city was littered with cameras. It seemed the humas had taken their city policing seriously. But every time she passed one, it would turn away. It seemed the creature had a greater influence on the city than she could even imagine.

It also became apparent to her why the creature had lured her down into the underbelly of the city to begin with. Or at least, what it wanted her to do. She couldn’t initially piece together exactly why it had chosen her. But either way, on that first day, after she had gently put down the human pistol, it had gingerly taken her hand in one of its slimy tentacles. And then it started to move, drifting through the air much like Hanar. Still, it always looked curious, peeking its slender head around every corner and into every crevice.

The pair navigated the corridors of the data center, until they came into a massive bank of servers. Some kind of network, clearly, but she couldn’t tell anymore. Huge conduits of data cabling snaked out of the banks, feeding back into the central hub where she had first met the creature. Unlike much of the facility, the equipment here hadn’t escaped whatever battle had occurred here. Plasma scoring marred many of the banks, deep gouges scored into the complicated equipment. Next to the entrance was the destroyed wreck of even more electrical equipment, ruined when it crashed to the floor from racks on the roof.

As quickly as the creature had led her here, it turned to her omni-tool, and with a wave if its tentacles, words suddenly appeared on her helmet’s display. Osh jumped back, startled at the speed with which the creature interacted with her display. In a second, she realized something even more startling: the words weren’t being run through her translators.

The words the creature wrote through her omni-tool weren’t in human. It was Khelish.

(Greetings Osh’Leih nar Teslaya.)

Her mouth hung open as she put together the gravity of the situation. The creature looked back at her expectantly, and every couple of seconds one of the six eyes would blink slowly. This creature, which she had found, no, had led her in the depths of the New Mombasa underbelly, who could control everything from cell doors to traffic signs and security cameras, knew how to speak Khelish.

They were on Earth, many hundreds of light years from the nearest far-flung colonies, and this creature had figured out how to interface with her omni-tool. And it could speak Khelish. And it knew her name.

Confused, the creature prodded at her chest with a tentacle and then gestured down to the omni-tool and then at her display. Its head co*cked, as it went to inspect the omni-tool once more, as if it was worried it had made a mistake. Quickly, she realized what it wanted.

“Hello?”

The creature perked up immediately and started nodding enthusiastically. Her eyes met with the creature’s. Well, two of them.

“What…What are you?”

The creature tapped at her wrist again, this time with one of its frilly ended tentacles. A new block of text appeared on her helmet.

(Quick to Adjust)

A surge of pride rushed through her. Had the alien just complimented her? A broad smile reached her face, as she nearly squealed in excitement, “thank you! But I can’t hack into an omni-tool in seconds. How do you speak Khelish?”

The creature stared at her dumbly. Its eyes blinked at her, mirroring her dumbstruck expression from earlier. After a moment, it seemed to shake its head at her, in response to what she couldn’t say. With a downward tailing whisper, it reached for her omni-tool once more.

(Help fix, Find entity: Sadie.)

Before she could even begin to formulate a response, the creature turned away and drifted over to a damaged bank of electronics. One of its frilled tentacles reached down into the tangled and melted mess of wiring, and started to pick them apart, rearranging and sorting through the mess of electronics in the ruined bank. As Osh moved besides the creature, she noticed how it was working, moving quickly over large segments of the circuitry. But there were areas that it avoided touching. Nothing seemed remarkable to Osh about them, and as she activated her omni-tool to help her path the electrical connections through the area, nothing important stood out to her.

She had seen countless broken systems on board Teslaya. It wasn’t anything new to her. More importantly, she understood how to identify dangerous components that should be avoided at all costs. And this wasn’t one of them. She couldn’t figure out why the creature avoided certain areas on each rack of electronics. Each time it finished work on the surrounding areas, it would pause and look at her, expectantly. Eventually, she asked the question.

“Why are you avoiding these areas?”

The alien rolled its head in some form of acknowledgement and reached again for her arm.

(Unstable, unknown variables. Quarian must fix)

Osh nearly snorted in surprise, and said, “you can’t expect me to know how to fix that! I don’t know anything about these systems.”

She barely knew anything about their humans, much less how their vast city sized network worked. She wanted to help the alien; she really did. But she had no way of knowing anything about this human tech. She didn’t know what the alien was expecting, but in a sense, she was disappointed to let it down. Still, since she was down here, she figured she could at least try and help the creature; learn what she could about the complicated system.

So, day after day, night after night, she watched the alien work. While she slept, the alien worked diligently, and when she awoke, it was always still working away. Still, the enormity of the complex meant that they never seemed to make any kind of significant progress. After a few weeks, she got to the point where she could begin to understand many of the more rudimentary repairs the alien was making. The area in each bank where power surges blew out power supplies, for instance, was both an easy fix with an omni-tool, and one of the most common failures the pair encountered. Eventually, she started working on these simple fixes ahead of the alien, repairing what she could before the alien had to take over for the more complicated repairs.

The more and more she worked, the more and more familiar she became with the basic outlay of the circuits. She slowly began to understand the basic function of many of the sections. Power. Networking. Data processing. She began to understand more of human architecture. But that one area in every bank, and sometimes entire racks of electronics different from all the rest, the engineer never touched. She still couldn’t understand why. The alien refused to give any more information beyond its simple warning, and the urging that she must be the one to fix it. What really perplexed her, is that as she became more familiar with the rest of the system, those areas that the engineer avoided remained a mystery.

And yet, months in, she began to get a tingling in the back of her head. With each bank she helped to repair, that mysterious area called to her. An inkling of an idea, a ghost of a memory, slowly started to form in her mind. She had learned much of the human system. But this region the alien wouldn’t dare touch, her ultimate task?

She had a horrific feeling that she had seen it before.

Mordin Solus had a sense of grim curiosity as he watched the starry sky of the outer reaches of the Sol system pass. He was excited to finally arrive in the new system, but the lack of information he had left him unsettled. The operation was cloaked in even more secrecy than Mordin was used to, and that was saying something for the young STG operative. Like many things in the STG, the first he ever heard of was when his team lead informed the unit that they would be leaving for the Sol system in the morning.

When the team arrived at their transport the next day, a small Salarian cruiser, on the surface armed for anti-piracy actions, they found the cargo bay packed with supplies, they knew something big was happening. They had nine months of rations, and all the ammunition and supplies the unit could ask for. The cargo bay was filled with heavy multi-ton crates. On the manifest, the crates contained sensor arrays that would be used to monitor coms traffic for pirates. In reality, inside the crates were several excavation vehicles, some of the finest models fresh off Sur’Kesh Heavy Industries’ supply line. In other crates, were complex hostile environment habitation modules, the kind the STG set down somewhere they intended to stay a while.

Mordin had seen quartermasters stowing high-temperature gear, full body exosuits designed for low oxygen environments. The STG didn’t throw around these kinds of resources on a whim. This was big, something bigger than the usual counter-terrorist ops his team had been running.

They weren’t the only team here. A small squad from the STG cyberwarfare division had arrived at the cruiser before them. The two teams exchanged courtesies, and it was quickly revealed that the cyberwarfare division didn’t know anything about their mission either. With the mission presumably being in UEG space, the cryptologists thought it could only possibly be something to do with the UNSC’s AI.

The AI were the dark secret that none of the rank-and-file STG members like Mordin were technically supposed to know about. But STG command, seeing the involvement of both Turian and Asari forces in the coverup, felt it would be wrong to leave their operatives in the dark. If asked, they all knew nothing. But they all knew the UEG was a ship without a pilot, so to speak. Still, the cryptologists’ speculation didn’t satisfy Mordin. It didn’t explain the excavation gear or high temperature gear. Nothing did, not yet at least. They were STG, not a construction unit.

And that only left his brain racing at hundreds of kilometers an hour. When the cruiser departed the system, and they still didn’t get any updates, Mordin had a burgeoning thrill. He had a simple rule of thumb: the longer you were left in the dark, the more exciting the truth.

And so, when their ship arrived in the Sol system with a shudder days later, and the two teams still hadn’t been briefed, he was ecstatic. They were told they would be heading for the outer reaches of the system; they would never get close enough to glimpse the remains of the powerful UNSC fleet, even with the long-range sensors. Still, cruising at FTL, Mordin was excited at the very prospect of being in human space. It was a new domain for him, and for Salarian kind. He thinks of the number of things he would do if he wasn’t on a mission: genetically cataloguing Earth’s surviving species, postulating about the evolutionary history of Earth, and answering the question that had been in the back of every Asari’s mind. There was so much to explore in this system, and it would be a shame that he was likely to experience so little of it.

Shortly, they were given orders to board the dropships they had brought with them. Some were already loaded with the thousands of tons of supplies they brought with them; others quickly became packed with Salarian agents. As the dropships departed from the hangar of the small cruisers, the viewports and the viewscreens were blacked. The claustrophobia didn’t bother the seasoned STG teams, but it did add even more intrigue for Mordin. The cruiser’s farewell transmission was broadcast to the teams, wishing them luck as they returned to the core of UNSC space to patrol for pirates as a cover.

It was odd. Mordin couldn’t remember in any operation that had maintained quite this level of secrecy. Normally, they had to hide their operations from the terrorist group and occasional Krogan cell. Normally it didn’t take nearly this much. Whatever they were hiding from this time, must have much longer reach. Exciting!

Mordin’s ears detected the change before he did, the gentle hum of the engines became a whine, as they entered some kind of atmosphere. His gut did a dance as the dropship wheeled around and entered a landing sequence. Once the ship hit the deck, there was a quick murmur from the crew. But, for minutes, nothing happened. They could hear the external doors of the co*ckpit open, but the crew compartment remained sealed. A huge rumble and metallic snuck into the bay.

The minutes ticked by. After what felt like an eternity to Mordin’s racing mind, there was a hiss. The door at the rear of the bay slowly lowered.

And the Mordin Solus stepped into the shining lights of the largest hangar he had ever seen. The doors of the dropship were facing massive doors, by their sheen, steel or titanium. Each door was dozens of meters wide, and as he looked to his left and his right, he could see door after door extending into the distance, massive support ribs between each climbing into the soaring ceiling above them.

He made his way around the Salarian dropships, where the co*ckpits were already empty, and the pilots were nowhere to be found. Behind them, the hangar was even more expansive. They were on the lowest level of 3 steps, with the outlines of massive elevators running up to the next step. On their level, was what felt like acres of flat decking, obviously to land craft on. Around them were dozens of storage tanks, each one labeled with its own distinct markings and colors. The step above them had what looked like a road running its length, with guard posts and monitoring stations tucked in behind it. Under the top tier, Mordin could see the windows and protruding nests of flight control centers.

As he looked to his left and his right, the titanic open space was enough to stun him. He held his arm out in front of him, measuring the distances between the ceiling and the floor in segments of his long fingers. His results? The hanger was massive, no other way about it. He was confident a brave enough frigate captain could park his vessel in this hangar here without much trouble at all.

But despite the hangar’s titanic size, it was empty. In some sections, plastic construction sheets fluttered in the wind. Wind. The hangar is so big it has wind. Convection currents likely, although could be an effect of high-volume conditioning.

But, outside of the Salarian dropships, there was not a single craft in the hangar. Odd. And, the more the Salarian looked, the more it became apparent just how unfinished the space was. Some of the screens and consoles still had protective film on them, in other spots, there were just empty holes where the consoles were supposed to be. Some portions of the hangar had extensive markings, as was becoming increasingly clear to Mordin, UNSC markings. Others were still bare, either with a protective primer coat, or none at all, titanium exposed to the world.

He had seen the reports on the UNSC dreadnoughts. They were big, but not this big. Which meant that this was some kind of a space station, perhaps an emergency headquarters on the outskirts of the system, temporarily safe from the Covenant assault. It still didn’t explain the lack of, well, anything properly UNSC. None of the “pelican” class dropships. No “longsword” fighter-bombers (and how he had wished to see one of the giant vehicles in action). The hangar looked abandoned. No, never used.

Was the facility, presumably a massive station, still under construction when the Covenant attacked? Likely.

Mordin was confident in his assertion until the deck beneath him began to rumble, and he felt the slight shift of his body before the inertial dampers kicked in.

He knew the feeling. They were moving. And to his surprise, he could feel the difference between this ship and the Salarian cruiser they had just departed. The effects of no eezo, he supposed.

Which meant this wasn’t a station. This hangar was too big to belong to one of the UNSC cruisers, which could only mean it was something else. Something that the citadel council didn’t know about. It suddenly made sense to Mordin why the STG was running an operation with the UNSC, with so much care for secrecy. The citadel couldn’t know. Mordin was sure he wasn’t even supposed to know either; the segregation of the pilots, the blacked out viewscreens, were clearly all in an attempt to hide the approach to this ship from the STG squads.

Over the rumble of the ship, suddenly there was a sharp burst of rapid thumps, like an artillery barrage in the distance, muted by the thick titanium of the hull. The thumps quickly eased, and a gentle whine took its place. But, like a turbine spinning up, the whine rose in pitch and volume, and in moments, it transitioned into a howl, like wind blasting through a tunnel.

Mordin’s stomach turned, like it was being pulled from the inside out. The howl reached a crescendo. There was one final jolt, and suddenly, there was silence. The deck became motionless beneath their feet. Some of the Salarians shouted in surprise. Their voices reached Mordin’s ears, but no echo bounced off the metallic walls of the hangar. It seemed like the whole ship was motionless. Footsteps sounded soft and empty, a stark difference to just moments before.

Suddenly, a voice crackled through the air. A Salarian voice.

“Welcome to slipspace,” the voice announced with an air of authority, “I’m Commander Rhosus. I will be overseeing this operation.”

Mordin had heard of slipspace, the groundbreaking method of FTL employed by the eezo-less UNSC. He had always hoped to experience it, he had just never anticipated it feeling so…unpleasant.

“Its about time I tell you about our operation here. I appreciate your dedication to secrecy.”

Mordin knew the commander’s words were hollow. This is STG. Secrecy is status quo.

The commander continued over the intercom above them, “in time, I will be down to join you and meet you all personally. This will be a long mission, and I want to know my personnel. For now, I remain on the bridge.”

“We are on route to a planet in the system Epsilon Eridani. The humans called it Reach. Six months ago, it was captured by the Covenant and glassed. The surface was turned to slag, and the oceans boiled.”

The destruction was wasteful. Entire biospheres destroyed. Siege and targeted bombardment would be equally effective at eliminating human resistance. “Glassing” a message, not a means. Wasteful killing. Disgraceful.

“During the glassing of Reach, UNSC survivors sheltered in a secret military installation known as CASTLE base. We know parts of this facility survived based on these survivor accounts. The facility was host to irreplaceable top secret UNSC and ONI research. Our mission is to retrieve research and items from one of the labs inside of the base. This research is vital to the UNSC, and the Salarian Union is being rewarded in kind.”

Quickly, it all began to make perfect sense. The excavation equipment, perfect for digging out structures buried in rubble. The heat resistant exo-suits would protect the agents from the harsh conditions of a recently glassed world. The habs would shelter the group during the long search for the lab and the facility.

“This existence of this ship is highly classified. Your teams will be confined to the hangar and will not be allowed to wander the decks of the ship. I am placing my trust in your professionalism. We will handle all our preparation in the hangar and launch missions from there.”

And with that, the last puzzle piece slid into place. The concealed viewscreens. The disappearance of the pilots. No doubt they too were on this ship, likely kept away from the rest of the team. They have seen the vessel during their landing. Security threat. This level of paranoia was something that Mordin had never encountered in his years with the STG. And it only drove his curiosity.

Rhosus finished, “with that in mind, let me introduce our UNSC liaison for this mission, and the construct at the helm of this ship.”

A woman’s voice, tonality much like an Asari, replaced Rhosus on the intercom, “Good evening, STG. My name is Aine.”

//

//FFG-336 ‘IRONCLAD SPIRIT’, Date: 2553/3/11

***ALERT***

NEW TRAFFIC ON: UNSC/EMERGENCY/EARLYWARNING:

UNSCHEDULED SLIPSPACE CONTACT

BEARING: OUTBOUND

CLASS: E

TYPE: UNKNOWN

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): …

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): …the f*ck?

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): I need a status update on all E class contacts in the Sol system.

AFFIRMATIVE

WAITING…

DONE

6 CONTACTS FOUND

CONTACT R4: DESTROYED 2552/10/20. TRACKING 3,713 FRAGMENTS IN LEO.

CONTACT R5: DEPARTED SYSTEM 2552/10/21.

CONTACT R61: LAST ACTIVE 2552/11/3. ADRIFT IN LEO.

CONTACT R64: LAST ACTIVE 2552/11/3. GROUNDED NORTH OF KOLKATTA.

CONTACT R137: DESTROYED 2552/10/29. TRACKING 16 FRAGMENTS IN LEO.

CONTACT R149: LAST ACTIVE 2552/11/3. ADRIFT IN LMO.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Cross check against home fleet after-action reports.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Are all E type vessels currently accounted for?

CHECKING…

AFFIRMATIVE

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): Compare inbound and outbound contacts for E class vessels from 2552/10/20 to 2553/3/11.

WAITING…

6 INBOUND CONTACTS, 2 OUTBOUND CONTACTS

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): With 5 destroyed or still in system? Those numbers don’t work.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): What the hell is going on?

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): List known E class vessels. All factions.

WAITING…

E CLASS SLIPSPACE SIGNATURES (EST. 3-6km)

CAS Class Carrier (Covenant)

Punic Class Supercarrier (UNSC)

DDS Class Carrier (Covenant)

ORS Class Cruiser (Covenant)

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): The last Punic went down at Reach, and all Covenant contacts are accounted for.

JOY 2610-9 (Acting CO, 7th Fleet (HomeFleet/7Fleet/QRF-1)): So, what the hell just left?

UNKNOWN

//

//

The entrance corridor to Earth was more congested than the freighter pilot had ever seen. It seemed like every day more people flocked towards the novel system. The pilot didn’t even begin to imagine what traffic might look like in a few months, much less this time next year. Even now, the Asari still maintained a narrow corridor into controlled airspace over Earth, and it stretched back into empty space nearly 3 times further than it had just a week prior. Of course, an enterprising smuggler could probably break away from the slow-moving column and make landfall away from the prying eyes of the Asari police forces. He’d heard stories of people who had tried it in the early days of the repopulation of Earth. The stories never came from somebody who was there.

None of the other captains in his circle had ever seen a human. He sure hadn’t. And he’d been all over the Sol system, their supposed home system. Right now, he was hauling hundreds of thousands of metric tons of titanium-A battle plate from the human shipyards over Mars. From what the resource officer had told him, the armor that clad the human ships. Strapped in his hull was a not insignificant portion of the UNSC wartime stockpile, originally destined to expanding the UNSC fleet. Processed resources could be worth more than gold in instances like this. Repairing and adjusting the infrastructure of mega cities on Earth took far more than the citadel species could ship in through the portal. So, the decision had been made, presumably with human permission, to dip into the UNSC’s massive titanium reserves. Swords to ploughshares and all that.

The captain tried not to think about what the survivors of the UNSC Navy might feel. The Navy was the single most frequent point of discussion for the freighters that congregated in the New Mombasa dive bars. Like the humans, the supposedly mighty vessels of the human fleet remained remarkably absent. In fact, beyond the shattered debris drifting in orbit, which he had only ever viewed from an appreciable distance, he hadn’t so much as glimpsed a human vessel larger than a atmospheric transport.

Some of his friends claimed they had, but he wasn’t sure that he believed them. It was obvious to the pilot that the situation was far worse than the citadel council made it sound. Politicians lying. What else is new? Still, he couldn’t understand the reason for the lie. There were obviously still humans somewhere. The functions of the city were still running flawlessly. There seemed to be a complete understanding of the resources in the system.

But still, the stories of the humans enchanted the pilot. He found himself staring into the debris field on most of his journeys, searching for the slightest hint of movement on his ship’s sensors. So far, it had been weeks. And nothing. His friend’s description still echoed in his mind. Dark gray shapes that slowly stalked the debris field. The occasional flash of a thruster firing where there should be none. The thought sent a shiver down his spine. The humans were out there all right. He wondered if any of them were watching him now, if there were any eyes staring back from the vast debris field.

Then, there was a sudden feeling in his gut. A whisper of nausea wrapped its way around his throat. And then, off his starboard bow, he saw it. It started with a singular flash of lighting that arced across the black of space. It seemed to appear from nowhere, and for a moment, it appeared to disappear into the void from which it came. Almost as quickly as it had disappeared, a raging torrent of blinding blue light appeared, and started expanding at a precipitous rate prom a pinprick to a brightness that threatened to overwhelm the auto-tint on his freighter’s viewscreens. In the center of the storm was a black darker than anything the pilot had ever seen. No light. No reflections. No glow. Just black. As the blue anomaly began to expand, others started to open nearby it, looking very much the same, just on a smaller scale.

And then, from the black at the center of the larger portal, emerged a gunmetal gray, twin-muzzled prow. The shape charged from the void, stretching longer, and wider, and taller as it went. The ship seemed to fill the pilot’s viewscreen as it leaped from the portal. It was truly titanic, longer than anything the pilot had ever seen. And he’d seen Destiny Asencion, at least in his early days, on a route to the Citadel. But the ship didn’t seem to stop growing, even as the portal closed with a flash behind it. And it was then the pilot realized. He and his hundreds of thousands of tons of titanium were in the way.

The pilot froze, his hands tightening on the controls. He knows he should maneuver, give way. His body wouldn’t respond, locked in a deep panic. The bow of the massive warship angled upward as it bore down on the diminutive freighter. Down the length of the hull, bright orange rocket plumes suddenly exploded, as for a split second, the bottom of the ship seemed alight. The ship seemed to jump upwards, a sudden massive impulse that the pilot had never seen outside of an eezo vessel.

And still, even with the emergency course correction, it was too close. The UNSC ship rushed overhead only a few hundred meters from the freighter. The pilot could count the barrels on the point defense stations, see the sealed hangar doors, and the long sensor antennas projecting forwards from the prow. When the ship passed it passed silently, and the pilot could only breathe a sigh of relief as the furious glow of the ship’s twin engines faded from the co*ckpit. Then, for a moment, there was peace.

And then, the vessel shook like it was caught in a giant’s grasp. The warship’s powerful ion wash slammed into the freighter, nearly jostling the pilot out of his seat.

And when the pilot looked back out of the window; at the space where the portals had appeared, he saw the Turian expeditionary fleet.

It’s the middle of the nightshift on Triumph, and Aurelia’s eyes are heavy with the promise of sleep. She doesn’t know what’s keeping her awake, she knows she needs to be up early in the morning. But for now, she was cuddled up in her cabin bunk watching data feed past her monitor. She wasn’t working, not really. She wasn’t looking for anything or trying to discover anything new in the data. Like always in subspace, the readings had been the same for nearly a week. Still, she couldn’t peel her tired eyes away from the screen. The hours ticked away as she watched in a disinterested trance.

And then, in one instant, the fusion yield surged. In a flash, Triumph’s automatic control systems adjusted the throttles to match, and to the rest of the ship, nothing had ever happened. But Aurelia noticed. The gentle thrum of the fusion torches had pitched for a few seconds, and in the overwhelming hom*ogeneity of slipspace transit, she noticed.

She blinked the sleep from her eyes and this time, actually paid attention to the readouts. And sure enough, her ears didn’t lie. There it was, 30 seconds ago, a 9 percent increase in the fusion power output. It didn’t come from an injection of fuel, nor a reduction in demand or load. Everything remained constant besides the yield and the automatic throttle response. But how?

She slinked out of bed and slipped a long coat over her night garments from her locker. She slid on her boots without bothering to secure the straps. Grabbing her data pad, she ambled to the door. When the door to her cabin slid open, the harsh electric lighting of Triumph’s corridor nearly blinded her. After all, the cruiser never slept, even if her crew did. As her eyes readjusted, she slowly walked down the deserted corridors. In slipspace, the needs of Triumphs crew was minimal. Halliday said that she would have put most of them into cryo-sleep by now if she had any idea how it would affect their alien physiology.

So, especially during the nightshift (according to Earth time), the decks were empty. And now, in the middle of the ‘night’, Aurelia was alone. Her mind still wasn’t exactly sure where her feet were taking her. Engineering, somewhere surely. The walk wasn’t a short one, despite her lodging’s proximity to the massive fusion drives. It was a nest of elevators and staircases, snaking through dozens of floors, and around the massive bulk of the reactor. Eventually she found herself in the long corridor that led into reactor control.

She had been here before, obviously, during the dozens of familiarization briefings she had with Halliday, and again to conduct her own research. The reactor was louder here, and she felt the cruiser’s rapid pulse echoing off the walls around her.

A faint chuffing sound echoed from the control room ahead of her. She snuck closer to the open door, peering her head around the corner. It was the huragok the humans had brought on board. The beast’s pink fleshy skin and tentacles dangled beneath the bulbous gas bag as it fiddled with the reactor console.

And next to the huragok was one of the Spartans. The Spartan’s back was turned to her, so all she could see is the back of the woman’s fatigues. The Spartan was short, not much taller than Aurelia herself. The huragok reached over to a data-pad at the Spartan’s wrist, and with a sharp trill, seemed to motion to the Spartan. The Spartan turned to face the huragok, and with an enthusiastic nod, a broad smile broke out across her face. Aurelia could see her face now. The Spartan had short black hair, and dark, wide set eyes. A scattering of freckles stretched across the bridge of her nose. When she smiled, she had a look of youthful innocence, a smile that reminded Aurelia of warm nights at her childhood home. When she signed something back to the huragok with her hands, the grin on her face spread even wider. There seemed to be no barrier between the Spartan and the huragok, and they exchanged messages and gestures with a glee that Aurelia hadn’t seen since she was a child.

And then, the Spartan spotted Aurelia’s face out of the corner of her eye, and the moment shattered. The Spartan whipped around, the happy glow in her eyes vanished as her eyes narrowed into a killer’s gaze. The Spartan moved to the side, placing herself between Aurelia and the engineer. To the Spartan’s credit, she didn’t reach for the holstered M6 at her hip, and instead settled for a questioning glare at the Asari in the doorway.

Heart racing, Aurelia stepped away from the bulkhead, her hands raised slightly in a show of non-aggression.

“Sorry, I didn’t know you would be down here,” she explained carefully. The Spartan stared back blankly.

“I do a lot of work with Halliday on Triumph’s propulsion system. I was monitoring the telemetry when I saw a power surge.”

At this, the Spartan’s eyebrows rose, and her expression shifted. Aurelia continued, “and, uh, I came down to check it out. Did you do something?”

The Spartan glanced back at the huragok before stepping aside and turning to Aurelia. She lifted a single petit hand, and with a wave of her pale fingers, beckoned the Asari over towards the huragok. As she approached, the huragok spared her a single curious glance, before turning back to the control console. The Spartan gestured to the console, and they both leaned in.

The huragok’s hands flew across the interface, manipulating fuel ratios and cooling loops in ways that Aurelia didn’t even know Triumph had the capacity to do. It suddenly dawned on her, this huragok was what caused the power boost. UNSC engineers had spent years refining their reactor’s operating conditions. To improve the capacity of a plant 9 percent in just a few minutes, well, was incredible. An astonished grin blossomed on her face, and she turned to her left, where the Spartan was watching her reaction with rapt attention. The Spartan looked back at her with an amused expression.

“H…how?” she managed to stammer out. The Spartan shrugged at first, but quickly something flashed across her face, and she started typing a word on the data pad on her arm. Aurelia’s translator made quick work of the words, as she took a moment to question why the Spartan didn’t tell her.

(We called them engineers)

“The huragok?” Aurelia asked, and the Spartan gave a single nod. Aurelia looked back at the engineer. Two of its six eyes stared back at her, blinking lazily. It was hard to believe a creature so, well, bizarre, could have such an incredible grasp of human technology. Aurelia supposed the Spartan might be thinking the same thing about her.

She turned to take another look at the Spartan, who was now watching the engineer with a fascinated expression. Now that she was closer, she could make out a faint scar running down her right cheek. The blemishes of war on an otherwise youthful face. A thought raced through her mind.

“I’ve met some of your allies, but not you,” Aurelia asked, “do you have a name?”

The Spartan stared at her like she was stupid. Of course she does, idiot. Aurelia looked down in shame, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

A touch of hurt danced across the Spartan’s eyes. She looked off into the distance for a moment, her expression indecipherable. Aurelia looked away, turning to look not at anything, but instead to avoid the Spartan’s judgmental stares.

Then, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to see the Spartan holding her data pad out so that Aurelia could see.

(Lucy)

The smile reappeared on the Spartan’s, no, Lucy’s, face, and Aurelia found a wellspring of excitement fill her heart. Still, Aurelia’s curiosity was further peaked by the data pad.

“Why do you use that? Can you speak?”

Lucy shrugs briefly, before shaking her head quickly. Aurelia’s heart sinks.

“Did you get injured during the war?” Aurelia asks delicately, not wanting to damage the fragile rapport between herself and Lucy. The Spartan seems to think for a moment, head gently swaying side to side, before shaking her head once more.

“Were you born like this?”

A nostalgic smile flashed across Lucy’s face, before she once again shook her head. The Spartan’s expression was still cryptic, and Lucy seemed to almost be humoring Aurelia.

“When did it happen then?”

Lucy counted on her fingers. On her right hand, she held up all five fingers, and on her left, she held up two more.

“When you were 25?” Lucy shook her head and smirked, at what Aurelia couldn’t tell.

“When you were 7?” Lucy nodded at first, before shaking her head no. She twirled a finger in the air.

“7 years ago?” Aurelia finally asked. Lucy nodded with a solemn smile.

Aurelia wondered what had happened, but she wisely decided to let the subject lie. Seven years ago, the Spartan was probably at war with the Covenant. Aurelia wasn’t sure she wanted to know what happened then to make her like this. Now, for the first time, she had a Spartan that seemed interested in talking to her. In their first meetings on the bridge, Aurelia existed as a bystander, not a participant. The Spartans didn’t engage with her. In later encounters, where she came into contact with Linda after the departure of the lieutenant, she had been given the cold shoulder. And she hadn’t even tried to talk to the mythical Halsey that Halliday had warned her about.

So she wanted to make sure she handled Lucy carefully, as paradoxical as that seemed for somebody of Lucy’s strength. Because Aurelia desperately wanted to connect with a human. To learn their stories. Asking too much too early could jeopardize all of that. Especially with a golden opportunity in her hands.

Because, in front of her was a human, that unlike most of the others on this ship, seemed friendly to her, willing to open up her heart just a bit, despite the stings of war. It was a welcome change.

“You seem different from the others. In a good way, I mean,” she said, stumbling over the possible misinterpretations, “…if you don’t mind me saying.”

The traces of a smile crept into Lucy’s eyes, and she gave a nonchalant shrug. She typed something else on her data pad, and then reached it out so that Aurelia could see.

(They’re old.)

Aurelia was taken aback at first, but Lucy’s failing attempt to hide the mischievous grin crossing her face gave the Spartan away. She was joking. Aurelia couldn’t believe it. A joke. Still, the joke, as innocent as it seemed, burrowed its way into her mind. Lucy looked much younger than the other Spartans. If they were Asari, she would have guessed they were hundreds of years older than Lucy. But she really had no idea how humans aged. Once again, her curiosity drove her to ask more.

“How old?”

Lucy seemed to pause and think for a second, brows furrowed, before flashing 4-0 and 4-5 on her right hand. She shrugged, and not satisfied with her own answer, reached down to her data pad again. She typed some, paused for a moment, and then deleted her message and retyping it.

(Born before the war. Not sure exactly.)

The implication made Aurelia’s stomach turn. She had expected, for a species that looked so similar to the Asari, a similar lifespan. Instead, the grizzled Spartans she had met on Triumph’s bridge, who she had guessed to be somewhere between 500 and 700 years old, were merely in their 40s. The ramifications of a nearly 30 year war suddenly became all too real. If human lifespans were more like the Turians than the Asari, 30 years could practically be an eternity, a large portion of a human’s life.

As her mind processed, she suddenly realized the other implication of Lucy’s words. If the others were different because they were born before the war, what did that make Lucy? Just how young was the Spartan in front of her? Had she ever known peace?

“Lucy… how old are you?” she asked, a feeling of dread creeping into her system.

The Spartan seemed non-plussed by her question and flashed a quick 2-0 on her hands. The wave of horror must have left an impression on Aurelia’s face, because the Spartans nonchalant expression quickly turned into one of concern. She co*cked her head at the Asari, a questioning gaze reflected in her dark eyes.

Aurelia didn’t know how to explain herself. In Asari culture, the young Lucy would still be in the early years of childhood. And yet she was born in the middle of a war that had already been waged for nearly a decade. At some point between then and now, she joined the UNSC and was turned into a soldier. A Spartan. Aurelia still wasn’t sure what that all meant. Just that what Halliday wouldn’t tell her told a story of its own. Black ops, military secrets, and shaky ethical ground.

Somewhere, over the course of Lucy’s entire lifetime, Aurelia was elsewhere in the galaxy. In what felt for her, a short albeit exciting period in her life, Lucy had underwent birth, childhood and rebirth into whatever she was today. It saddened her. Turians and especially Salarians aged fast. Much faster than she did. But for some reason the rapid pace of human life seemed to hurt Aurelia more. Maybe it was their resemblance, some kind of deep evolutionary connection to those that looked so much like her own. Perhaps they weren’t as alien to her. Maybe somewhere deep in her subconscious, the other races of the Citadel were always others to her. Maybe the humans weren’t.

She wondered what it would have been like to live in human space as an Asari. To watch generations of inspiring people be born, live, and die. To watch as a race struggled against an inevitable opponent. To see how they reacted. To see how many lives they were willing to sacrifice to give others a chance. Aurelia realized now was her opportunity, to finally get a human perspective on the war from more than just whispers and old recordings.

“Lucy, and you don’t have to answer this,” Aurelia prefaced, “what was it like? Your childhood during the war. The war itself.”

Lucy’s concerned face turned to a slight frown. She paused for a moment, her expression slightly pained. Eventually, she began to type.

(Don’t remember my home. Glassed when I was 6. Remember a cat. Maybe a horse).

Aurelia’s guilt creeped back into her face. It seemed the war touched everybody, some worse than most. She found herself imagining the war as a gradual tragedy, the collapse of a species in slow motion. She had forgotten that for most places, the war was also quick. That the UNSC’s best disguise was secrecy. That when that secrecy failed, the war was far too quick.

As Lucy typed on, Aurelia watched her expressions closely. A twinge of fury first, and then a sort of saddened reminiscence. Aurelia quickly realized that Lucy’s face was its own sort of language, her own expressive way of conveying how she was truly feeling.

(Parents were killed by elites. I hid.)

(Didn’t understand what was happening. Somebody brought me to a shuttle.)

(Too many people. I was scared.)

Aurelia had tried to imagine what it must have been like on a world under siege. The rookie’s recording helped, but it was different from a soldiers perspective. Having a weapon and the tools to fight back. To see a hardened soldier like Lucy recount such a time of helplessness was insightful; a time when even she couldn’t fight back. Aurelia felt pity for the young Spartan. She knew Lucy wouldn’t want it, but she felt it anyways.

“What then?” she asked in a softer tone.

(I was a ward of the UEG. Later, I chose to fight.)

The simplicity of Lucy’s statement struck a chord with Aurelia. It was as if that simple truth was the world to the young girl. She could see now why the girl became a Spartan, whatever that entailed. There was a clarity to her mind, the way she thought about the world. A determination to keep on moving, of seizing agency of her situation. She was only broken from her thoughts by another tap on her shoulder. Lucy once again displaying a message on her data pad. Her face was curious, and there was no trace of the emotions that had clouded her face just moments earlier.

(How old?)

Beneath all of her reminiscence, Lucy’s ability to transition from a story of war and tragedy to a simple questions about somebody’s age almost made Aurelia chuckle.

“382”

The Spartan’s slack jawed look of astonishment finally broke Aurelia into a fit of laughter. The two would spend the next three hours there in the reactor control room, all while the engineer worked away. By the end of the night, Aurelia wouldn’t remember half the things they had talked about. But she would have a new understanding of the diminutive Spartan.

The pelican streaked across the frigid skies over Seoul, icy white condensation trailing out of its engines for miles behind it. The city hadn’t yet been the focus of colonization efforts from the citadel, and for now, the only traces of non-human presence were the occasional week-long Asari patrols, designed to spot and deter any surface level looting. Of course, in a city as large as Seoul, the patrols would do little to deter determined looters. The same was true in nearby Seongnam, where the towering skyscrapers provided far too much space for even an entire battalion to secure. But, according to the briefing the Spartan team had received from the Asari administrators, the Korean metropolis’ relative remoteness from colonized cities served in its favor; word of the city hadn’t yet spread to the scavengers, although the administrator didn’t expect that to last.

Olivia surveyed the city through the open door of the pelican. A mid-March snowstorm had recently blown through the city, and the Covenant raids on the city had disabled the city superintendent, leaving the streets thick with fresh snowfall. Where normally the snowfall would have been removed by a system of plows and blowers, without the superintendent, it stuck, leaving a white crisscrossed lattice across the entire city. The snow-capped skyscrapers were a majestic sight and reminded Olivia of the towering structures of her home city on Miridem. Unfortunately, the Covenant had left their mark on Seoul.

The signs of battle were light in the city, although even from high above the city surface, Olivia could see areas where UNSC artillery strikes had leveled buildings to halt Covenant advance. If she squinted, she could see the profiles of scorpions strewn across the streets, attempting to blockade routes into the city center. In certain districts, long burned lines carved into the earth, where Covenant vehicles had carved landing sights and cleared UNSC defenses. A Covenant corvette had crashed north of the city, and its purple hulk was clear even kilometers away.

It was eerie, so quiet. So empty. Like a war frozen in time.

The pelican crossed from the concrete jungle over a small pocket of dense forest before beginning to circle. The nondescript bunker-like angles of Seongnam Special Warfare Center were barely visible below the dense tree cover below them. Olivia could see the well-traveled paths cut into the snowy forest, complete with captured Covenant vehicles on which to test the UNSC’s newest weapons. Through her com, Olivia could hear Kelly making the final pre-landing checks, as the broad tail of the pelican swung around, now just a dozen meters above the snow dusted treetops. As they lowered down onto the pad, the pelican’s jetwash clouded the air with disturbed powder.

Coming from behind her, Fred vaulted out of the pelican with a well-practiced comfort. His MJOLNIR didn’t sink far into the shallow snow before contacting the metallic pad just a few centimeters below the surface. He swept around the landing area, as the pelican’s engines began the initial stages of their shutdown. Fred seemed to take a moment to himself. As the engines whined to a halt, Olivia was struck by the silence of the facility. The snow acted like a muffler, and everything seemed to act almost without a noise. She could hear the squeak of Fred’s armored boots in the snow, but besides that, the hillside seemed to be almost perfectly at peace.

She looked down at the ground below the pelican’s ramp. The pelican had shifted forwards slightly since Fred leaped out of it, and at the end of the ramp was nothing but unblemished snowfall. Something kept her from taking those two simple steps. She was frozen, taking in the majesty around her. The delicate beauty of the trees in the forest, devoid of their vibrant foliage. Towering skyscrapers in the distance, rising from the river plain. The cold nip in the air, and the earthy scent that filtered through her SPI. She looked down at the ground beneath the ramp once more. Fred saw it too, turning to see her motionless on the ramp.

“First time, Spartan?” he asked.

Olivia smiled to herself. She could only bring herself to nod to the Lieutenant, who stood watching her from behind his MJOLNIR.

He waved her forwards, “It’s all just dirt, same as anywhere.”

Olivia took a step towards the edge of the ramp, and then one more off it. The snow crunched beneath her feet before her feet planted firmly on the titanium pad beneath it. She took another step forwards, leaving her ridged boot prints behind in the snow. The snow felt, somewhat disappointingly, exactly like it had during winter training on Onyx. She didn’t know what she was expecting.

Suddenly a hand pushed her shoulder, causing her to stagger another few steps forwards. As she turned to look, she quickly spotted the culprit. With her ODST helmet in her hands, Kelly grinned mischievously back at her and said, “congrats kid, your ancestors only beat you by a few hundred thousand years.”

As Kelly strutted forwards and slid her helmet on, Olivia looked back at her uneven footsteps in the previously untouched snow. She barely heard Fred’s voice.

“Welcome home.”

Halsey’s override codes got them inside of the facility easy enough. It seemed not even ONI was willing to lock MJOLNIR’s mastermind out of one of her own facilities. The halls, were, as expected, deserted. All around them were telltale signs of compartmentalization. The early signs of a campaign of denial. Detonating charges had been set on the critical load bearing charges. Server racks were mined, and the facility’s smart AI had, according to the station dumb AI he left, been transferred to another facility.

Defensive emplacements lined the hallways, turrets and modular fortifications preventing easy access to the facility HQ and power generation levels. The elevators were locked down, leaving the staircases as the only avenue down into the depths of the multileveled facility. Fred led them, following a map on his HUD provided by the dumb AI.

Olivia tried to ignore the piles of armor and uniforms that were tucked up against the fortifications.

The trio made their way down to the MJOLNIR lab, 12 floors below the surface. The dumb AI had advised them, much to Kelly’s joy, that there were still a half dozen suits of MJOLNIR MK VI awaiting deployment. The woman moved with a joyful spring in her step, and the thought of Kelly as an overgrown, surgically enhanced child on her birthday nearly caused Olivia to chuckle.

The facility reminded Olivia of the orbital station above Onyx just a few years ago. She had mixed feelings about the operation. She remembered being proud that her labor was finally coming to fruition; that she would finally be set loose against the Covenant. She remembers the feeling of fire burning through her veins, the agonizing swelling of her body, deep, aching, inescapable pain in her bones.

She remembered the aftermath, before her first dose of smoothers, when her mind was clouded with paranoia and distrust, when she lashed out at the very scientists that had helped her become a Spartan. After the blissful release of her first dose, the clarity came quickly. And not long after, she shattered one of Camp Curahee’s training dummies with a single kick. She never quite got over the feeling of power coursing through her blood. She felt invincible, like she could take on the world at a glance.

But she knew better. Because of Kurt. Because of Tom and Lucy. She knew how many Spartans overconfidence had killed. And so, when Kurt ordered team saber to stay on Onyx to finish their training, she was disappointed, but she understood. Because to defeat the Covenant, she had to be perfect.

She watched Kelly and Fred, walking side by side several paces ahead of her. To Olivia, her augmentations felt like a lifetime ago. Miridem, another lifetime more. She wondered what it must feel like to the two Spartans ahead of her. From what Kurt had told them, they had been thrown into combat against the Covenant shortly after Harvest. Before the UNSC knew what they were up against. She wondered about what it must have been like. To fight in the early years, when there was still some semblance of hope.

Their arrival in the MJOLNIR testing lab was greeted by a chime.

As Kelly and Fred entered the room, they froze.

Kelly let out a long, low, whistle.

Olivia, still behind them, moved to the side to see around the two Spartans. And it quickly became obvious. On the walls were multiple racks of green MJOLNIR in pieces on racks behind a single, large armor ring. In front of the ring was a terminal, and around the perimeter of the room, dozens of workstations where technicians had once worked diligently to fit the armor.

But, more importantly, the object that had garnered the two Spartans’ attention, was the single Fury tactical nuke resting on a bench in the center of the room.

“They weren’t kidding, were they?” Fred quipped, “when Materials Group wants something gone, they don’t mess around.”

Kelly who had slowly made her way over the bomb, peered over at its display, and responded, “well, they forgot to light the fuse. We’re secure here, the codes haven’t even been entered yet.”

As Kelly continued to examine the fury in the center of the room, Fred moved to the terminal in front of the armor stand. Olivia, unsure of what to do, followed him. Fred moved around the room with familiarity. At the terminal, the GUI seemed to come easily, and although he had to hesitate every so often, he quickly began navigating through the various screens at rapid screens. He looked back at Olivia, who was watching him with a curious expression.

“I’ve seen the techs do this often enough that I should know what I’m doing by now,” he smiled back at her.

“Of course, its harder than it looks…” he finished.

Olivia looked around him at the MJOLNIR in its racks. The armor looked just like Fred and Linda’s, complete with broad visor and green coating. Olivia wondered what it would feel like to put the armor on, if only just once. When she had joined the Spartan III program, it had been with the hopes of one day becoming like the armored warriors she had seen in propaganda tapes, tearing the Covenant limb from limb.

When Tom and Lucy had first trained them on SPI, she had found it hard to hide her disappointment. However, she had quickly begun to appreciate SPI’s advantages on the field of battle. But the ideal of the MJOLNIR clad Spartan had never escaped her mind. She picked a helmet up off the rack, removing her SPI helmet. It was heavy, much more so than her SPI. That would be the thick titanium alloy plating, much denser than SPI’s photoreactive panels and heat ablators. She rapped her knuckles on the side of the helmet and listened to the clanking retort.

Kelly, still laboring over the fury, muttered under her breath, before saying, “one megaton just outside of Seongnam? Damn thing would have taken out six or seven districts.”

Fred, still working at the terminal, replied, “I’m sure they would have waited until they were overrun.”

“Uh huh.”

Finally finding what he was looking for, Fred pointed over at a rack in a closed enclosure with a bodysuit on it.

“Kelly, we’re in business. Olivia, grab that tech-suit for Kelly when it’s done.”

“Done, sir?” she replied, glancing back at the terminal. What she saw surprised her. At the top of the screen was Kelly’s designation, her rank, and her UNSC ID number. Below that was a 3D scan of the woman’s entire body, with the tech-suit molded over it. Dots and lines highlighted several areas of interest, sketching geometric shapes over the Spartan’s body. What they meant, Olivia had little clue, but they complexity fascinated Olivia.

Behind her, from the enclosure where Fred had pointed, she heard a whirring. As she looked closer, she realized that what she had previously thought to be a rack was actually an intricate system of arms, flat pads, and needle-like protrusions, carefully suspending a full body suit. As the sound started, they began to work, poking and prodding at the suit, using the curved pads to shape the suit. Once supported, the needles danced in and out, poking and prodding at each perfect curve and contour.

Fred, noticing her fascination, explained, “the crystal layer in the tech-suit is where MJOLNIR’s magic happens. Kurt might have explained it to you,” Olivia shook her head as he continued, “it needs to fit the profile of the user exactly. Luckily for us, our scans are still on file.”

He looked back at the terminal, “250, Kelly? You sure you haven’t lost a few pounds? All that time sedated…”

Kelly, who was now stripping off her ODST gear, retorted, “why don’t I hit you so you can tell me? …Sir.”

The machine in the enclosure continued to whir away, and the previously androgenous form of the suit was slowly starting to take on the much more feminine form of the broad-shouldered Spartan II. The process fascinated Olivia, as she watched previously unseen lasers dance across the suit, permanently fixing elements of the suit. SPI was adjusted with straps and buckles.

Behind Olivia, Kelly had removed most of her gear and was down to her underclothes. The woman’s burns were already scarring, and the worst of the cracked and blistering skin had finally calmed enough to remove the bandages. Olivia knew that the Spartans IIs had surgical, rather than injection-based augmentations. They had all been taught the history of the program when they first enlisted.

As Kelly removed the rest of her clothing, Olivia couldn’t help but to stare at the lines etched into her wide back. A long scar ran down the length of her spine, branching out to sides along her collarbone and up around her neck. A deep ‘V’ starting at the small of her back angled up towards her shoulder blades, giving access to her ribs. Olivia knew the procedures killed or crippled half of the class. Another started at the tailbone and cut upwards along the perimeter of her hips. The longer she looked the more she saw, the geometric patterns across the arms and legs, complemented by nearly 30 years of damage. Seeing the scars personally made her all that more grateful for the improvements in the procedure in the years since.

Kelly turned to catch the teen staring. Cracking into a grin, she winked at Olivia, flexing her muscles, and posed for the Spartan, and said, “not bad for an old timer, huh?”

The beeping of the machine behind her provided an excuse for Olivia to look away. The arms of the machine had finally stopped moving, and the doors of the enclosure slowly slid open. The smell was peculiar, a hint of rubber, laced with the pungent odor of ozone. As she lifted the suit, and slung it over her shoulder, the weight was unexpected. Looking at it, she had expected it to be much lighter than it was, like the under-suit she herself was wearing under her SPI. But, like Fred had said, there was more to MJOLNIR than met the eye, and apparently this suit was part of that.

It wasn’t long after she handed the suit to Kelly that the Spartan was standing on the pedestal, the form-fitting suit covering her from toe to jaw. Olivia could only watch as Fred began manipulating the robotic arms of the pedestal in a ritual-like fashion, as slowly, he attached the heavy armor plates to Kelly’s limbs. There was no fumbling or second pauses, the two Spartans moved with practiced precision. The chest-piece came last, as the two clamshell halves were clamped firmly to Kelly’s chest. Cables trailed from the backpiece into the ceiling, and Fred left them attached.


Fred placed the helmet on Kelly’s head, and suddenly, she was the Spartan from the propaganda; formless, emotionless, robotic. Lethal. The clamps on the ring released from the Spartan, and her limbs sagged under the immense weight of the MJOLNIR.

Fred moved to the terminal, and with a single press of a button, and a sudden flicker of the laboratory lights, suddenly, a hum emanated from the suit, and it seemed like the weight was released all at once from Kelly’s limbs. Kelly’s com channel flickered to life inside her SPI.

Looking up from the terminal, Fred extended his left arm out to the side, pointing with a finger straight out. Kelly’s visor slowly turned to watch it. Fred then extended his arm to the right, and Kelly’s head turned to follow that too. The procedure was arcane to Olivia, but to the two older Spartans, it seemed to make perfect sense. Fred pointed up, then down, and then back up again. Kelly followed his every move with her head. Fred silently extended a thumbs-up to the Spartan and pressed a button on the terminal. Golden lightning arced from ports on the armor for a few moments, and then suddenly, a golden flare traveled up the Spartan’s body. When it ended, it seemed like nothing had changed, but Olivia knew it had. The Spartan’s energy shielding was now active, the crowning achievement of MJOLNIR engineering; a feature that would have saved hundreds of Spartans if it had been introduced 20 years ago.

Kelly stepped down from the pedestal slowly, every movement precise and measured as she was careful to not overcompensate with the new, more powerful armor. Her voice cracked over the coms channel.

“Wow. You guys weren’t kidding. It feels so much lighter. Much more free moving.”

Fred nodded, and Olivia let her eyes wander the room. She landed on another suit of armor, and somewhere deep inside her, a voice spoke. What if?

Freds commanding voice broke her daze, as he turned and began to walk out of the room.

“Next stop, the requisitions office. I have a hunch we’ll need something nicer to wear in the next couple of weeks.”

Olivia turned to follow him, but stopped when Kelly didn’t start to move. Her attention was fixed on the terminal, and as she scrolled through it, different profiles flashed by. Eventually, she came to stop at one, and for a moment, paused. She seemed frozen and made no move to follow Fred, stuck staring at the screen. Olivia peered at the screen, where another Spartan’s scans filled the screen.

Fred’s voice called out again from down the hallway. Kelly’s voice, somber, answered back, “coming, sir.”

--

The slow revelation sat like a lead weight in Osh’s mind. It was close, she could tell, but she could make no headway. For now, she continued to work on the server banks with the engineer, and every time she glanced the strange circuitry at the heart of the machine, something deep inside of her would twang.

And still, the section didn’t come to her like the others. She didn’t gradually begin to understand its purpose. Just a sinking feeling that she had seen it all somewhere before. She constantly racked her brain trying to find the perfect, but the answer always seemed to be just out of reach. When she slept, she dreamed of the circuits, but no explanation ever came. The engineering would work through the night, while she was sleeping. When she took a break for food brought down from the surface, it worked. When her fingers began to cramp and she took a break, the engineer worked. And yet, the peculiar creature avoided that piece of circuitry like the plague, and whenever asked, insisted that the Quarian must be the one to repair those areas.

And then, one night, it finally happened. She remembered. From a young age, Quarians were encouraged to learn everything they could about their vessels. Often, when they were out of school, their parents would take them around their ship to their workstations, showing them how to keep the immensely complicated ships running. Osh’s father was an electrician on board Teslaya, an ancient cruiser from before the fall of Rannoch. He used to take Osh with him on his duties, so that she could watch and learn how to fix the cruiser’s often temperamental circuitry hubs.

She remembers one time well, because it was on her birthday, and her father decided to let her be the one to fix the circuit, under his supervision of course. It was a simple repair, the replacement of a capacitor in one of the ship’s life support control systems. As simple as it was, the feeling when Osh first touched her omni-tool’s soldering module to the complicated circuity was irreplaceable. The ships lives were entrusted to her and her repairs; she was a valued member of the ships crew for that one moment. The feeling never left her.

But, just now, she had finally remembered the second half of that story, forgotten until now. When she was finished, her father explained to her all the electronic boards in the electrical hub, their function, how important they were, and how often he had to repair them.

She realized that she had seen something like the strange UNSC circuitry somewhere before, oddly enough, in the very place where she grew up.

She remembered it because it was unused. And nothing on a Quarian ship was unused. While the circuits were far from identical, the logic loops and overall structure were eerily similar. The components and the exact framework may have been different, but Osh was certain that their function was the same. She had worked with enough electronics from the different species to know when two things did the same thing.

If only she could remember what her father had told her about that circuit.

And then she knew. And was filled with a horror that she had never felt before in her life.

“Papa? What does that do?”

“What, that? It’s the old Geth mainframe uplink, ka’sed. Don’t worry, it can’t hurt us now esan, it’s been disabled for centuries.”

Chapter 13: What They Left Behind

Chapter Text

Dr. Savo fascinated me at first. How such an ancient creature could seem so naïve was beyond me at the time. It was only later that I realized the wisdom Aurelia possessed. It just wasn’t apparent to me so shortly removed from the war. To this day, I don’t know what inspired me to entertain her curiosities. Maybe it was our mutual fascination with List. Most of the Turians avoided the engineer. But Aurelia seemed as fascinated as I was by the huragok. She had a childlike fascination with, well, everything. It was refreshing. I think it was a perspective I needed at the time, still grieving the loss of our people. To be able to enjoy the little things in life, the technological miracles surrounding us.

She never tried to pry my past out of me; she always waited until I was ready. Which I am eternally grateful for. I don’t think I was near ready to discuss TORPEDO with anybody then, much less an alien. Even Kholo haunted my memories back then. Especially with Tom gone. Even now, nearly 90 years after the fact, I struggle to write about those days. It’s not that I don’t want to. I want people to hear about my brothers and sisters. What they died for. I want to tell their story. But I just… can’t. The words won’t come. The same way they didn’t for the rest of my life. It was indescribable. I see Pegasi Delta every night when I close my eyes. And I couldn’t for the life of me describe it for you. How can I ever talk about something like that?

Williams, Lucy. Words Unspoken. Translated by Aurelia Savo, Thessia Diplomatic Press, 2255, pp. 270.

The Asari police unit meandered down the corridor of the abandoned UEG housing complex. The twenty-story tower was on the outskirts of the old city, near one of the many still-standing bridges to the commercial districts in the heart of the city. The demand for housing in the city was explosive. In New Mombasa proper, the heart of the Covenant attacks, most of the residential buildings were far too damaged for immediate occupancy. Which left the booming population of immigrants from citadel space packed into the few buildings that hadn’t been torn apart in the fighting. As a result, the Asari and UEG joint administration had authorized expansion into the old city, in the hopes that more residences could be found for the fledgling colony.

Complex 34A seemed a perfect candidate. Fighting in the area had been intense, but fast. There was evidence of a UNSC cordon out front of the building, but all evidence pointed to a hasty retreat from the sector at the threat of Covenant encirclement. According to UNSC records, the retreat was ordered just an hour before the pulse swept through the Sol system. Which, in a stroke of luck for the administration, meant that the entire block was in near-pristine condition, barring a few wayward wraith strikes.

And as expected, the building was completely intact. A rarity in the city. In the hasty evacuation of its civilian occupants, most rooms looked exactly as they had before the invasion. It was interesting for the police captain to see exactly how humans had once lived. The building was remarkably preserved. The captain and her team had encountered a single UNSC position inside the building, a machine gun nest looking out onto the street from the floor they were on. But, judging by the lack of spent ammunition at the scene, the position had never seen action before the retreat was ordered. Another team had found evidence of a sniper’s roost on the roof, but again, it looked like the site had never been engaged.

Another reason why the building is still standing. The captain had seen countless buildings that had been destroyed to root out entrenched UNSC or Covenant positions. Complex 34A would have joined them had the fighting reached this sector before the retreat was sounded. This tower was a gift. The captain had already let the reclamation teams into the building. While not strictly according to protocol, with the building this pristine, the captain thought that they could have it open for residency within the week. And if she was lucky, the captain would be rewarded for the rapid completion, and be allowed to move in herself. Afterall, her crowded lodging in the city center, shared with three other Asari, was starting to wear on her nerves.

She glanced out the window where civilian clean-up volunteers awaited the all-clear from the police. The street was packed with all manner of citizens. The opening of a new residential structure had become almost a celebration amongst the workers, a sign of progress for the war-torn city. The captain could see food and drinks being passed around and could hear the bass from the music blaring from below.

In the middle of the hallway was a narrow constriction where one of the structural pillars supporting the building passed vertically through the corridor. Piled against it was refuse from the UNSC evacuation. Empty HMG, mortar, and rocket launcher ammunition boxes, all piled next to children’s toys, household waste, and large bags full of discarded clothing.

Had the captain been in less of a hurry, she might have stopped for a moment. If she wasn’t so eager to get complex 34A operational, she might have thought about the odd arrangement. Why were there so many empty ammunition boxes here? There hadn’t been any fighting in the building. Why was it all stacked against this pillar, so far from the machine gun nest? Why was the civilian refuse here? Who packed toys for their evacuation only to leave them discarded in the hallway? Who took out the trash in a warzone? In what surely was a hasty evacuation, why bother removing old clothing from your apartment?

But the Asari police captain didn’t stop to ponder the strange collection of refuse. Had she, she might have looked more closely at the pile.

And had she investigated, after carefully picking apart the pile, she might have found the two green satchels resting against the pillar. She might have seen the wires trailing out of the back of the pack, or the IR tripwire crossing the constriction in the hallway. Had she opened one of the bags, she might have found the dozens of C-12 cubes neatly stacked inside each pack.

But, off-guard and in a rush, the captain didn’t stop. One of her subordinates tried to call out something as she stepped through the constriction. The message didn’t have time to reach her ears.

The Turian worker was leaning against the large aircar that had taken his work party outside of New Mombasa’s downtown. The traffic was dense, and far more teams had showed up to clear complex 34A than had been anticipated. He had to dismount at the end of the block, a couple hundred meters from the complex. They were still awaiting the all-clear from the police, but the consensus of the crowd was that the signal would come soon. He looked up at the pristine blue sky above the city, the sunlight glittering off the glass windows of the tall towers. He decided New Mombasa was a beautiful place to live. His coworker was chattering in the background. Music rang out from somewhere nearer the building.

And then the worker was on his back, and the sky was suddenly gray. The world had gone silent. He blinked once, twice, three times, but he couldn’t clear the biting grit of dust in his eyes. It was then that the Turian realized his body hurt. A blinding pain from where the back of his head had slammed into the ground. His arms and legs ached like he had just run for kilometers.

He staggered to his feet, only to discover that it was raining. He reached out a talon. Instead of splashing against his scales however, the raindrop kept its shape. Glass. The Turian looked up. He could see nothing through the dense cloud of dust. Not even the air car that he had just been leaning against.

It only then occurred to the Turian that the music seemed to stop. He turned around and stumbled his way towards the center of the crowd. He wondered why he didn’t hear any voices, there had been hundreds of people here just seconds earlier. Then, from out of the cloud, ran an Asari. Her hands were covering her ears, blood trickling down through her fingers. She was covered with grime and dirt, and her mouth was open in a scream. The Turian wondered why she was silent as she grabbed at his clothing and pointed back towards the center of the crowd. Her mouth seemed to move, but he couldn’t make out any sound.

He couldn’t see much further than a handful of meters in front of him, but at the Asari’s persistence, he trudged. As he walked, the dust slowly started to clear. That was when he noticed the bodies strewn in the street. They were motionless, arms and limbs skewed at odd angles, blood dripping from countless lacerations on their exposed flesh. He looked at the building to his left, opposite where complex 34A stood. Its façade was crumbling, like somebody had fired an enormous shotgun into the side of the building. The Turian could see craters where large concrete chunks had collided with the structure. All the windows were smashed, and the last remnants of the once glittering façade were raining down onto the street.

And then he turned to his right. The smoldering remains of complex 34A had crumbled into the street, forming a massive heap of steel and concrete. Where the tower had once stood, was now a pile of rubble. At the back of the lot, the rearmost framing of the complex stretched up for five, maybe 10 floors. The Turian could see the tattered remains rooms and corridors, and the worldly possessions of hundreds of humans drifted down from the blown open rooms. The rest of the complex seemed to have vanished, like some giant reached down and scooped away nearly the entire building. The dust was still thick here, and the Turian coughed and sputtered. The rubble had crushed aircars and formed a hill in the center of the street, where the entrance to the complex had been.

The Turian felt hands at his back. He turned to recognize an Asari in military uniform. Beyond her clothing, caked in dark gray dust, she seemed unharmed. She grabbed him, despite his protests, and dragged him away from the rubble. She carried him nearly a block before putting him down, leaning up against a wall with about a dozen other workers. The people around him were all wounded, in one way or another. The Turian tried to speak, to make the Asari understand that he was okay, that he could help. But her mouth moved, and no sound came out.

Something hurt on the back of his head. He reached back, only for his hand to come away covered in blood.

Fred and Mendez watched the telecast from the briefing room on board Canberra. Vehicles of the major news networks captured footage while they circled the ruined complex. The death toll had been large, too large. 121 people had died in the blast, with hundreds more wounded. Had it been a terror attack, it would have been one of the deadliest in the last 20 years for a citadel colony. Instead, it was an accident. A UNSC marine striking down the innocent from beyond the grave.

Fred spoke first and said with a resigned weariness to his tone, “there had to have been signs.”

Mendez didn’t say anything, his long stare at the telecast continuing uninterrupted.

“A perfect sniper’s nest overlooking UNSC positions. A hasty UNSC retreat. It was practically a guarantee that the place was mined. It was just too valuable. We were at war. Did they not get that?”

Mendez took another moment, and then said, “not everybody has your training, Fred.”

Fred shook his head but didn’t respond and sighed.

Mendez gave Fred another long look before asking another question: “Would the Covenant have set off that bomb?”

Mendez knew that Fred knew the answer. And, if Fred’s dissatisfied grunt was anything to go by, the Spartan knew he had been cornered. Because Mendez knew that Fred had caught countless Covenant patrols in similar traps. He’d taught him how to himself.

“If an elite major would lead his squad into it, why is it so unbelievable that an Asari police team would let their guard down just enough to miss some satchels hidden around a corner? They’re civilians, not fighters.”

“And,” Mendez added, “even then it might not have mattered.”

Fred pinched his brow. Yet another thing on the ever-growing list of things the Spartan needed to manage. Eventually, the Spartan spoke again.

“What can we do to stop this happening again?” Fred asked. Mendez stretched his neck, before sitting down in one of the many chairs lining the briefing room. They stared at the rubble at the accident site. Watched the stretchers carrying dead out from the collapsed building. It was a grim sight, but nothing Fred hadn’t grown used to seeing over the course of the war. He had thought the war was over. He feared that there was a lot of work left to do.

“I don’t know,” Mendez said, exasperated, “battlefield cleanup was never really my domain.”

Fred scoffed, “that’s the problem, isn’t it?”

Mendez finished, “A bunch of people trained to destroy, and nobody trained to repair?”

Fred fought a sardonic chuckle as the door slid open behind them. It was the Turian captain aboard Canberra. When he saw what the two humans were watching on the viewscreen, his expression fell. The Turian clutched a data pad in his talons. Fred didn’t get along with the command staff of Canberra like he did that of Triumph. Their captain was a very model of a Turian officer: strict, by the book, and devoted. The side effect, unfortunately, was a certain lack of flexibility in his leadership. Early after they departed the joint fleet, the captain had made efforts to reintegrate the Spartan teams into the chain of command. Unlike on Triumph, where Victus had allowed a situation resembling cohabitation more than a hierarchy, the Canberra’s captain had attempted to control.

But, with Odysseus driving the ship, the captain didn’t exactly have a lot of leverage. Eventually Fred was able to wrangle a degree of independence for his teams. But not, the captain was looking at him and Mendez with an apprehensive expression.

“There’s been a situation,” the Turian began.

Mendez groaned. There was always a situation. But Fred nodded his permission for the captain to continue.

“The bombing has resulted in calls for accountability from the joint administration by the galactic media. Until now, the council has maintained that a small but extant human administration was overseeing the colonization efforts. This was initially done to hide the existence of UNSC AI from the public, and then to provide legitimacy to the colonization efforts.”

“However, especially after a tragedy like this, the failure of the council to put a face to the human administration is leading some in the galactic community to wonder if somebody is really behind the wheel.”

Mendez cut him off, “cut to the chase, captain.”

“The Lieutenant needs to make an appearance on the Citadel, alongside the entire team.”

Fred’s heart sank at this. He knew it was a long time coming. He also knew that the Spartans wouldn’t be able to operate from the shadows forever. Eventually, they would have to go public. He had just hoped it wasn’t quite so soon. Somehow, he thought that if just given some time, perhaps even six months, his teams would be able to put together some semblance of normalcy. Repair the holes torn in their psyche in the closing year of the war. Reach, Kurt, Halo. Too many countless other moments that the Spartans hadn’t had the privilege of stopping to assess. Somewhere deep inside, Fred knew that it wouldn’t make enough of a difference.

But now, his hand was forced.

“And if I said yes?”

“An Asari sloop stands ready for your word. Travel through the relays will be far quicker than slipspace.”

Fred turned to Mendez, “you won’t get all of us. Chief, you’ll be staying here. I’m need you to start a program to train police and civilian volunteers about potential UNSC traps in the city. I know this isn’t your expertise, but…”

Mendez finished for him, “but training is. I’ll teach them the doctrine. We can’t worry about disposal until we know where the damn things are.”

Fred turned to Canberra’s captain and said, “send word to the sloop and the council. We leave in 12 hours.”

Fred stood to leave the room, already not looking forwards to breaking the news to the rest of the team. As he brushed past the captain, Mendez called back, “Good luck, sir.”

Fred gave one final nod and left the room.

Fred almost didn’t recognize his own reflection. It had been years since he had worn a dress uniform. Even longer since he wore his whites, with his extensive lists of honors pinned to his chest. It felt wrong, in a sense. He earned them in MJOLNIR, but today, when he would display him to the alien world, he would wear them on a uniform that he had worn maybe 5 or 6 times in the last two decades. He stared at the single silver bar affixed to his collar. The mark of leadership that had been thrust upon him by Kurt after years apart.

During the war, it wouldn’t have carried such a heavy burden. Leadership of a small team or squad at most. Management of the squad while the NCOs did much of the detail work. Now, suddenly, he was the only surviving officer in the UNSC, the highest-ranking human in the galaxy. In a sense, he wished he wasn’t. In another sense, he was grateful. He wouldn’t want Linda or Kelly to be shouldering the heavy burden. The three of them were built for conflict, not politics. If it had to be anybody, he was glad that it was him.

He took one last look at his uniform. It was perfect, every detail exactly according to regulations, just like Mendez had taught them all those years ago. Fred wished that Mendez could be here now. He had trained them all, from Fred and Kelly to Tom and Olivia. They all looked up to him. He should be leading their first steps into a new world. Fred knew that in Mendez’s heart, he was a grunt, like the rest of them. But the chief petty officer had spent years managing a large staff of trainers and instructors. Fred and the other Spartans needed his leadership with them on the citadel. But Earth, and the burgeoning reconstruction efforts needed his experience more, especially in light of the recent explosion. So, Fred was left to lead the group alone, to become the face of humanity in this brand-new world.

The trio of Spartans were waiting for him near the airlock. An armed Asari guard in ceremonial dress stood nearby. Tom was helping to make some final adjustments to Olivia’s uniform. It might have been her first time wearing her dress whites, fresh from the chaos at Onyx. Perhaps even for Tom, too. The secrecy of Ackerson’s program didn’t lend itself to the dramatic ceremonies that warranted donning of dress uniforms. Fred suspected the Spartans would rather it be that way.

Fred was responsible for the decision to wear dress whites, despite his own instincts. To the rest of the citadel, the humans were a race that had taken massive losses but persisted. They were supposed to still have a strong command chain, and supreme leadership over their own space. A race that controls some of the most powerful warships outside of Covenant space isn’t supposed to send four ground-pounders in advanced power armor to a diplomatic meeting. So, anticipating the eventuality, the team reacquired their dress uniforms in Seongnam, replacements for uniforms and ribbons burned on Reach and Onyx. They would be wearing full honors. Even if the citadel news media didn’t know what the ribbons and medals meant, color and gold had a universal meaning all of its own. The honors would speak of experience, of honored heroes and high-ranking diplomats.

If they assumed the honors came from leading fleets and armies in glorious victories against a grand enemy instead of putting bullets through the heads of insurrectionists and hinge-headed horrors knee-deep in the mud of burning worlds, all the better.

He looked over the uniform of his team. The three of them bore the UNSC eagle and twin chevrons on their collar and epaulettes. Petty officer second class, all. The rank he would have been wearing not even 9 months ago. The rank he probably should be wearing.

The left-side of Olivia’s chest was mostly bare, reminding Fred of just how young the Spartan was. Fred remembered when he was her age, fourteen, and being thrown into the teeth of the Covenant. Back then, he had felt experienced, like he was finally an adult making a difference in the world. It wouldn’t be until his twenties that he realized quite how young they had been at the start. Looking at Olivia now, it was hard to believe that he and Kelly had ever fought that young. She was an efficient warrior, Fred knew that, just like they had been, but it still felt different. The wonders of perspective, he supposed.

Some of Tom’s honors had surprised Fred. From his understanding, the Spartan had a short fighting career to this point. After the disaster of Operation TORPEDO, details of which Fred had to pry from their files, as neither beta company Spartan would speak much about it, Tom and Lucy had quickly been reassigned to Onyx to train the gammas. Until recently, that meant safety from the Covenant. Still, the small cluster of ribbons on Tom’s chest spoke volumes about the intensity of his short fighting career.

Kelly was another story altogether. The Spartan made it easy to forget her accolades. She never seemed to care about her own honors, nor that of any other service member. She had been the one to push back the hardest against wearing their dress whites. She pushed for service uniforms, after Fred had quickly denied her request to wear MJOLNIR. At least then, she argued, she could wear a pistol at her hip. Fred denied the request.

And yet, in full honors in her whites, to the non-military eye, Kelly could easily be mistaken for a decorated general or admiral. As John’s go-to number two, combined with a flurry of solo actions towards the end of the war, the Spartan had earned more honors than Fred, or most other Spartans for that case. It turned out that being the team’s designated ‘rabbit’ and being under fire more often than not sounded heroic in the mission reports. Fred didn’t think the reputation was undeserved. Like Fred, she wore the triad of campaign ribbons that separated the Spartan IIs from their younger comrades. Fred had nearly decided against wearing the insurrectionist campaign ribbon alongside his inner and outer colony defense ribbons but in the end decided in favor of it. He did his duty as a soldier of the UNSC. It seemed Kelly had decided the same.

Most prominent on Kelly’s chest, below her medley of service ribbons, was the golden shine of the colonial cross, suspended from its distinctive blood-red ribbon. He wasn’t with her when she earned it. None of them were. During the chaotic spring campaigns of 2551, a slew of inner colonies were located by the Covenant in a span of just a few weeks, and the Spartans were spread thin. Kelly had been deployed solo to Imber, where she helped to evacuate civilian transports from her former home world. In a daring retaliatory strike, Operation: HEMMORAGE, she had destroyed half of the Covenant fleet above Imber single handedly. It still hadn’t saved the world. However, in desperate need of propaganda victories, the UNSC had Kelly up on a stage within a week, pinning the colonial cross to her chest.

Kelly gave a faint smile when she saw that he had arrived, but it didn’t reach her eyes. She seemed to be looking at something in the distance, hundreds of meters behind the sealed door of the Asari airlock. Fred supposed he couldn’t blame her. This endeavor was unlike anything the four of them had ever done. Kelly and Fred had both done propaganda tours, sure, but it usually in armor, where they could hide behind the unstoppable façade of MJOLNIR. And it was always in front of humans.

The Asari captain standing by the bulkhead held up two fingers.

“Two minutes until go, Lieutenant. The press has been barred from the docking bays, but as soon as we step into the presidium atrium, they’ll be a factor. C-Sec has cleared the walkways to the Citadel towers past the embassies, and we’ll be alongside on your flanks. You’ll have a private audience with the council, and from there, you are expected to give a joint speech to the press. We recommend not answering any press questions until then,” the captain explained. While the Spartans had lost access to the translators that Halliday and Odysseus had crafted for their suits, most of the Asari military personnel had them in their own suits.

Fred nodded his head, “thank you captain.” It was nothing the Spartans hadn’t heard in their initial briefing with the Asari administrator, who had returned to the citadel with them to help ensure the meeting went smoothly.

He turned to his team, “we’ll go two by two. Kelly with me, Olivia with Tom, behind us.”

Olivia and Tom nodded their heads, while Kelly remained silent, a tight-lipped frown on her face. The Asari cleared her throat, letting them know their time was up, and the airlock door started to open.

True to the captain’s word, there were no reporters at the docks, just C-Sec officers guarding the entrances to the bay. As Fred and his team started to depart down the ramp, they watched with interest, craning their heads around pillars and corners to watch as the Spartans disembarked. When Fred met the eyes of one of the Turians, it quickly turned its head.

The docks were an expansive room, and while the UNSC certainly couldn’t park much more than a frigate here, it was an impressive port for a station. And what a station it was. Fred looking behind the group, the causeway they were on sloping up slightly, and beyond it, the five wards expanding against the abyss of the nebula. The geometry nearly made his head spin, seeing the dense cities on the wards dangling thousands of meters above his head. The shield world had been magnificent, but the scale had been far too big. It was difficult to understand what exactly you were seeing. Here from the presidium docks, he could see the mind-boggling complexity of the massive station. It was unlike anything he had ever seen.

Had somebody told him the bays were produced by the UEG, he might have believed them. The structure was familiar, even to Fred’s human eyes. Sure, there were more curves and streamlined edges than the blocky hangars of the UNSC, but it wasn’t too far off from the civilian structures in New Alexandria or anywhere else on Reach. If it wasn’t for the adrenaline rushing through his veins, or the Asari guards around them, he might have even felt at home.

The Spartans’ shined boots clacked against the deck plating as they crossed the bay. They came to one of the elevators, the party packing into the small space. With a smooth lift, the elevator began its travel to the presidium. A voice in an alien translator began to play over hidden speakers in the elevator. Without translators, they couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. One of the Asari guards seemed to chuckle.

(Word has just been received that the human delegation has arrived on the citadel and are on their way to the council chambers. The galaxy eagerly awaits their first glimpse at the hereto secretive new species, and large crowds have gathered in the presidium hoping they sneak a peek at the humans. How will the introduction of humans affect citadel politics? How will the joint administration address the disaster in New Mombasa? How will the UNSC fleets affect the balance of military power in the galaxy? Stay tuned for answers on this special program of the Citadel News Network!)

Fred took the opportunity to glance at his team. Olivia and Tom seemed to be managing. The young gamma was still taking everything in with an aura of amazement, basking in all the newfound information and experiences around her. Olivia was whispering with the Asari next to her, the Asari speech being filtered and spoken back in English by the guard’s omni-tool. Fred couldn’t make out what was said, but soon, Olivia’s eyes widened, and Fred couldn’t tell much more.

Tom looked right back at Fred and gave him a small nod, which Fred returned.

When Fred turned to Kelly, her hands were clenched into fists, and her eyes were shut. Fred could see the slow rise and fall of her chest. In. Hold. Out. Breathing exercises. The same they had been taught in their marksmanship classes. He bumped her with his elbow. Her eyes snapped open, and she looked back at him.

Her mouth moved slowly, and guiltily, she murmured, “attól tartok. El tudod hinni?”

His brain raced trying to formulate the right response. Finally, he replied, “nekem is.”

The Asari sandwiching the pair gave them strange looks. They were probably worried their translators were failing. Fred looked back ahead, leaving Kelly to her ministrations. The elevators finally stopped.

And then the doors slid open.

The shouting of the amassed crowd reached them first, as the first pair of Asari guards disembarked. At their signal, Fred and Kelly stepped forwards into the warm artificial sunlight bathing the pavilion. Thousands of flashes poured from the crowd, only held back by the armored C-Sec officers lining the bath. Thousands of shouts in alien voices all blurred together in a disorientating cacophony. Some held signs in languages Fred could not read. Others waved and shouted; omni-tool recorders activated. The rattling and electronic whining of hundreds of cameras reminded Fred of the sound of distant gunfire chattering away across the battlefield.

It was overwhelming, all at once, like the feeling of leaping out of an ODST pod and witnessing a new battlefield for the very first time. Much like he had dozens of times before, he quickly resettled, and strode forwards, setting the pace for Kelly and the Spartan IIIs behind him. He flashed a glimpse at Kelly. Her eyes were hard, and mouth downturned, fighting a scowl. She looked straight ahead, as if she couldn’t know what she would do if she looked at the crowd surrounding them. She was fighting her deepest instincts. Fred knew she would come through.

Fred took another step forwards, and the four figures in white made their first footsteps into history.

Siliphi Prasi was amongst the hundreds of reporters and spectators packing the presidium. Her team had found themselves halfway along the long walk from the dock elevators to the citadel tower. They were on the right-hand side of the walkway, near the Volus embassy. When she heard the roars from the far end of the walk, she knew it was nearly time.

The Asari’s slight frame could often be a disadvantage when reporting breaking news. She was often muscled out by rival reporters or overlooked due to her small stature. But today? Today she was relying on it being her greatest asset. Her camera operators wouldn’t be able to follow her, but they had a plan. And a secret weapon. She checked the small camera attached to her shoulder one last time. The blinking green light that the camera was rolling, streaming data to the receiver on her camera team’s packs. She prepared herself, and then charged into the crowd.

She was pushed this way and that by the thronging mass, and she could scarcely see where she was going. Shouts of annoyance were hurled after her as she weaved her wave through the masses. She didn’t have the time for apologies or condolences. This was the game they all played, and they all knew it. It was vicious, sometimes being a reporter. Fighting to get the first source. Coordinating sources like a spymaster just to get a leg up. Well, Siliphi’s team had done their homework.

She finally managed to push her way to the front of the crowd before the burly arm of a C-Sec officer stopped her in her tracks. There was a small line of rope barriers set up, and Siliphi had almost barged clean over it. She mumbled an apology that got lost in the crowd, and the officer gave her a sharp look but quickly turned his attention back to the surging crowd.

Siliphi fumbled around with the pack she had slung across her chest and pulled out a small amplifier. In this crowd, no single voice would ever be heard above the rest. That is, unless said voice was cheating. She fumbled with wires and connectors. Everything was ready. It had to be. She would only get one chance. The voice of the crowd surged furthermore.

She looked up from her trembling hands, nervous at possibly the most important moment of her career. She could see the humans coming her way, surrounded by their guard. Even from here, they were impressive figures in the clean white uniforms. As they drew closer, their appearance astonished her. She knew from her research the humans were supposed to look like them. The Asari, that is. Bipedal, five fingered, five toed, and all the rest. Some of her sources had even claimed they looked nearly identical. But she didn’t believe it until she saw one of the humans for herself.

The woman in front, as she had learned that humans had both men and woman, had the cold blue eyes that would be at home on an Asari commando. Had she replaced the pale tans and pinks of the woman’s skin with the blue of an Asari, that too would have fooled Siliphi. And her hair! The other difference she had heard about from her sources in the Sol system. Much of it was hidden behind her peaked cap, but Siliphi could make out the soft layer formed by the brown filaments.

Her eyes trailed down to the uniform of the four walking forms. The white formed a stark contrast with the black trim and golden accents. It was the kind of uniform that would have entranced her younger self, who once dreamed of glory in the Asari military. Colorful ribbons and gleaming medals hung from the human chests. Ranks? Awards? Clan decorations? Her questions would have to be answered later. Or never. She surveyed the others in the group. The men! How strange it was to see a masculine form of the Asari body. Broad shoulders and wide chests. Although now that she looked back, all the humans were banded with muscle. They filled out their uniforms, and together, they almost seemed like an impenetrable mass. How incredible! And the woman in the back, she looked so young! Siliphi wonders if…

There was no time. The humans drew nearer. They were just seconds away from passing her. She opened her omni-tool, connected to the amplifier. She pressed a button and the camera mounted on her shoulder sprung into the air, dancing and balancing behind her on tiny anti-gravitational pads. This was her moment. See, the other reporters here didn’t have the sources she had. They knew that contact and communications had been made between the Asari, the Turians and the humans. But the translation thus far was a government secret. The translation module was kept isolated, restricted use only in the Sol system and amongst government officials. So far, human language has been unnecessary in the wider galaxy. The reporters all shouted as they always did, in their native tongues, trusting that the translator of the listener would do the work that made interplanetary civilization a possibility. They assumed that these humans had omni-tool translators, and that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the hundreds of other voices calling out.

But, Siliphi had her weapon. The translation data, smuggled out of a C-Sec ready room by one of her moles. Not the software, nor the complete module. Just the translation and pronunciation data. But it was enough. The key to the entire human language at her fingertips. Or more accurately, the key to any phrase in the human language. And she studied. And she learned what she needed.

And when the group of four humans drew as close as they would reach, she brough her omni-tool to her face, and spoke a language she didn’t understand. Carefully practiced syllables and vowels, hours of work poured into perfecting a singular phrase. They felt strange in her mouth, but she persisted. She yelled it, as loudly as she could, because this was her only shot. The amplifier screeched above the din of the crowd, drowning out the hundreds of voices in the sea of people around her.

The question needed to be provocative. It needed to warrant a response, be something the humans couldn’t ignore. Being in their tongue would help, but it wasn’t enough. The question had to hurt, touch something that they couldn’t ignore. It had to mean something to them, so that their response would draw millions of eyes. She and her producers had been working on their question since the visit was announced.

And at last, Siliphi seized her moment:

“WHY DID THE COVENANT BURN YOUR WORLDS?”

Kelly had managed to fight the endless drone of the crowd. She had her eyes locked forwards, focusing on the route in front of her. Focusing on planting each foot in front of the other, marching like she hadn’t in 30 years. She knew the cameras clattering on either side of the path were picking up thousands of pictures of her. Every detail would be scrutinized by an eager public. Her face, her hair, her expressions, the medals on her chest, the way her sleeves moved on her arms, everything. Every tiny little deal would be under the scrutinizing eye of the alien public. Disseminated in every tabloid and news article for aliens to gawk at.

She spared a glance at Fred, and a sudden surge of anger built in her chest. This isn’t my f*cking job. She shot aliens, hell, on occasion, she shot people too. She was a killer. That was her job. That’s what the UNSC made her into. That’s what she gave up her childhood for. To end anything that threatened humanity. Not whatever the hell this was.

She had been involved in propaganda tours in the past. But always as a Spartan. Almost always in armor, and when she wasn’t it was to celebrate her bloody actions on the fields of war. But never like this. What Fred was asking of them was unlike anything they had done before. They weren’t here as Spartans. In fact, Fred was doing everything he could do to disguise the fact that they were the skeletons NAVSPECWAR’s closet. Hiding the fact that according to peacetime UEG laws, their very existence was a crime. Of course, none of that mattered after the UNSC seized control of the government in the wake of the Covenant invasion.

It wasn’t lost on Kelly that Fred chose to wear their dress whites over the blacks. He would explain it as a gesture of peace and decorum, wearing the uniforms reserved for only the most important ceremonies. Putting their best foot forwards for their new allies. But it also meant fewer identifying marks. No Spartan II and III unit patches on their arms. No twenty-seven years’ worth of golden service stripes running down her right sleeve identifying her as an enlisted woman. Instead, she looked like some officer fresh off of duty in some diplomatic office in Sydney. A pretty picture for the cameras. A reassurance that the UNSC brass was intact and in control. Despite the fact that the entirety of UNSC personnel has been reduced a handful of NAVSPECWAR’s golden children.

Hell, the average UNSC marine probably had more in common with these aliens than they did with her. What was she doing? Representing humanity? What did she know about humanity? She wished it could have had been some other pocket of humans who walked their path. A civilian bunker on Earth maybe, where teachers, mathematicians, and artists had sheltered from the coming storm. They could teach these aliens about the rich culture of humanity in a way Kelly never could. Maybe an outer colony world that had gone dark and somehow unnoticed, hardened farmers and miners who had learned to chip an existence from the soil of hostile worlds. But Kelly wasn’t so lucky. Halo’s devastation was complete.

But, because she was a Spartan, she would do whatever was asked of her. That was how they were. How they all were.

Suddenly, above the din of the crowd arose a single cry. It seemed to be louder than the surroundings, called to her in a way that nothing else had. And then with a stuttering step, she realized she understood it. The voice was heavily accented, but Kelly could still make out the words. The world seemed to slow in front of her, her augmentations honing her reaction time to a dozen milliseconds. Her body seemed to move in slow motion as she swung around to find the shouting voice.

It was a scrawny blue figure, staring back at Kelly with determination and a victorious grin on her face. She was clearly a reporter, like countless others around her. She was shouting into the device on her wrist, the omni-tool as Kelly had learned to call it. Her mouth formed the familiar shapes of English, in sharp contrast with the alien crowd around her. Kelly was vaguely aware of Fred and Tom turning their heads to follow her gaze. A camera flashed.

It was only then that Kelly registered the meaning of the reporter’s question.

And it ignited a fury in her heart.

Why? What kind of a question was that? How could anybody answer that? Because they wanted eradication. Because they were filthy unholy vermin unfit for existence. Because Covenant commanders took joy in the slaughter of millions. Enjoyed the feeling of energy swords sliding through human flesh. Because they thought honor came through the blooding of the innocent. The slaughter of those who couldn’t fight back, right alongside those that could. What did it matter why?

How could she ever explain the way the sky turned red when a planet burned? The miserable, quiet sobs of marines who had realized they won’t make it off-world. Or worse, the hollow eyes and accepting silence of marines who welcomed the end. The overwhelming heat radiating from the baked earth. The sight of UNSC destroyers raining from the sky trailing flames. How world after world, it felt like the entire galaxy was collapsing on itself; tearing open on its very seams, morphing into fire and brimstone. How could she be expected to explain it to somebody who never met the ferocity of the Covenant?

She realized quickly that she was staring; the ugly, hateful sneer that she had fought against now firmly affixed to her face.

A shape moved in front of her, stepping between her and the Asari reporter standing behind the line of C-Sec officers. A firm hand found her shoulder, and in front of Kelly, the serious eyes of Olivia glared back. She flicked her head forwards, two fingers on her free hand pointing along the path. Move out. She knew that signal by heart. All of them did.

They turned to find Fred and Tom a few short paces in front of them, slowing their march so she could easily fall into step. With two long strides, she was back in formation, moving forwards just like they had before. She heard the soft clack of Olivia’s boots fall in behind her. With a flash, she snapped back to reality, and waves of gratitude washed over the Spartan. Gratitude that Olivia could see the signs of a mind running away. Grateful that the young Spartan trusted herself enough to step in when Fred and Tom didn’t. Grateful that the young Spartan had her back.

In a flash, she realized. This was her job. Not posturing or politics. Not the fanfare and ceremony. But she was here with her comrades. That was her job. For 27 years, Fred has had her back. On Onyx, Tom and Olivia had stood shoulder to shoulder with her. Even now, the young Spartan worked to keep her on track, to keep her from making a costly mistake. She was here with 3 Spartans. They were her job.

And if there was one thing that Kelly would never do, it was let down the Spartans that stood at her side.

When they were ushered into the second set of elevators, Tom felt a sudden surge of relief wash over him. The noise had been beginning to get to him, the constant clamor, and desperate cries for attention from the reporters in the crowd. When that reporter had shouted her question, it had struck Tom just how unprepared they were for this world. For any world really, where they weren’t at war. He knew about six dozen ways to strip an elite’s shields. And for all that, he knew nothing about politics. Nothing beyond the understanding of just how violent it could be.

It had been nearly 15 years since Tom had last interacted with a civilian, if you didn’t count the ONI doctors involved in his augmentations. Probably a relief worker in the refugee settlement on Tribute. Ever since, he had been transferred from UNSC facility to UNSC facility, trained and insulated away from the prying eyes of the civilian world. It brought with it a certain mastery of the system he lived in, the understanding of the dynamics and forces of a massive military operation. He became immersed in his world. He believed that he was ready to make a difference, ready to turn the tide of the war. When he was at his most impassioned, he believed that the Betas would be the company to finally beat back the Covenant.

While the older Spartans fought on the home front, Beta company would work in the shadows, crippling Covenant manufacturing and supply lines. He knew that his company could do it. And then came TORPEDO. In a single day, any illusions he had about humanity’s fate in the war was washed away. Tom and his comrades accomplished their objective. If they hadn’t, he was sure he would still be there, another corpse on the rocky approach to the refinery.

Beta company, which Tom had been so sure would help to turn the tide of the war, was obliterated. All that were left were two Spartans, only one of which could even tell their tale. The Covenant supply line was lengthened by a few light years. Tom knew that another world had fallen in that sector, just weeks after Beta’s strike. When Kurt approached Tom and Lucy about joining the Gamma company training program, Tom accepted before Kurt could even finish. Beta was dust. But if he could teach Gamma his mistakes; teach them how to become more perfect Spartans, they might be the ones to turn everything around. All it took was one Spartan in the right place and at the right time.

He looked at the backs of Kelly and Fred in front of him. Kurt had been a monolith, a figure that towered over everybody. His personality matched, and Kurt seemed to be able to reach the young Spartan IIIs in ways that Tom could not. At the time, Tom had thought it was because he was a Spartan II. When off duty, Kurt would often recount tales from the early days of the Spartan program. There were stories of infiltration and espionage, combat action deep within the civilian worlds. Tom heard about fighting the insurrection, how one had to have a sharp ear and an even sharper mind if they wanted to avoid ending up with a dagger in their back. So, Tom had figured that Kurt’s charisma had come from the program, from the need to interact with the civilians.

That impression did not survive contact with blue team. In them, he found himself. The reclusive, hyper-fixated, and socially wanting archetype of the Spartan program. Fred had echoes of Kurt in him, that much was for certain, as the doors to the elevator slid open. There stood the three councilors before a massive room, filled with greenery and intricate architecture. By the door stood an aide, who promptly handed them all in-ear translators. Designed for Asari, Tom presumed, but he was grateful for it. On the fleet, the citadel translators had taken Turian and Asari speech and turned it into English, spoken aloud by the best approximation the omni-tool could manage. It was serviceable, if patchwork, but it sometimes made conversation tedious. Before Tom could slip the translator into his ear, the Asari councilor, Tevos, stepped forwards.

“Welcome… to… citadel. My name is Te-vos.”

Her pronunciation was awkward and stilted, but as she finished, Tom couldn’t miss the brief smile that flashed across Olivia’s face. He supposed he understood to some extent. It was comforting to hear English from another living voice. The Spartans lined up next to each other, slipping in their earpieces. There was a brief standoff, neither side sure who should move first. Ever the politician, Tevos moved first, reaching a hand out to Fred.

Fred took it, and with that, the game began.

Tevos didn’t quite know how to process the data handed to her by the human officer. The team of humans stood back, watching the councilors as they scanned through the thousands of pages of data. The Lieutenant watched them with slight grin, as if excited to have caught the councilors off guard. Immediately after their introduction, the officer passed along three copies of the file, both in physical and digital form. When he said nothing, the councilors had taken the initiative and opened the files.

It was stunning, both a gesture of compromise and startling display of dominance. It was rare that political maneuvering ever surprised Tevos. She had been informed the Lieutenant had little political experience. Perhaps that would matter less than she had once thought.

It was only then, with all three councilors engrossed in the data given to them, that the human officer spoke.

“In light of recent events, my assistants assembled this report. We’ve been calling it the Red List.”

Tevos knew exactly what the Lieutenant meant by ‘assistants’. The UNSC AI. And yet, the man knew that they knew about the true state of human governance. Which meant, to still be playing coy, he had a distrust of their surroundings. Prudent, if unnecessary. The existence of the human AI had been discussed on many occasions in this very room.

The officer continued, “a detailed identification guide to every explosive device in UNSC space, from grenade fuses to octa and nukes.”

Indeed, the list was thorough, and each entry had identification drawings and pictures alongside with disposal instruction. Tevos tried not to think on the dozens of entries with ‘TAMPER PROOF: CONTACT UNSC OFFICIALS’ written in bold font in the disposal recommendations. Tevos hummed, “mmm. Valuable military intelligence to give to a foreign government. How very generous.”

The Lieutenant didn’t waste time pretending he didn’t know what Tevos was talking about, and responded, “if it can happen to a residential block, it can happen to manufacturing facilities. Fewer Asari police units blundering into traps means fewer of our buildings get turned into rubble. Petty officer Sierra 087 would like to highlight some of the more relevant entries.”

Tevos let the small slight of her people wash over her, as was normal in her line of work. At this, the woman to his right stepped forward. Unlike the lieutenant, the woman’s expression was one of carefully curated indifference. Too carefully. Tevos could see it in the way her eyes moved, how she suppressed even the most innocent impulse. The woman was uncomfortable. Which meant that she might make a mistake, a chink in her armor. But when she stepped forwards, her voice was ironclad.

“Our threat assessment focuses on an intersection of prevalence and risk,” she paused a moment to allow the councilors to refocus their attention, “for instance, the substance we believe destroyed apartment complex 34A is called C-12. Based on the yield, it’s likely more than one satchel was used. C-12 was deployed widely with Marine and Army units. It’s extremely portable and concealable and is likely the most common demolition charge deployed on earth. As such, we believe that C-12 will continue to be a threat to citadel forces on earth. Detection is the most critical step, and our forces left on earth will train Asari police on UNSC guerilla tactics.”

Tevos saw Sparatus make note to send to his military teams. To her, the soldier’s message only emphasized the importance of increasing the military presence on Earth, particularly EOD techs. Valern spoke looked up from beneath his hood.

“And by forces, you mean the lone human left from your group?

Kelly shot him a foul look, “he’s more than capable, sir.”

Tevos interceded, and requested the soldier continue.

“Functionally, most of the conventional ordinance has similar disposal options available, provided you can detect the device. However, when discussing our nuclear arsenal, its far more serious.”

Tevos, familiar with the preparations already made by the Sol administration, sought to ease the woman’s concern, “not to worry. We’ve already deployed a cordon around all weapons stockpiles and orbital wrecks. Nobody will be able to access the UNSC nuclear arsenal.”

“Councilor, that’s the least of our worries.” Tevos’ face fell at the woman’s words. With a quick glance to her comrades, the soldier continued.

“We found a Fury tactical nuke inside of an ONI facility in Seongnam.”

A chill ran down Tevos’ spine.

“At one megaton, it would have devastated the city. If it were still occupied, it might have taken out millions. As the citadel continues to expand, more and more civilians will be at risk. You need to inform your forces that while operating in UNSC and Covenant space, there is a credible threat of encountering nuclear weapons. Under no circ*mstances are Citadel forces to attempt to disarm or tamper with these devices. The results could be catastrophic,” the soldier’s eyes swept the room as if to emphasize her point.

“How likely is the threat of a nuclear incident, Petty Officer?” Sparatus asked.

“Very, sir. Along with MACs, nukes were one of the few weapons that could reliably damage Covenant energy shielding. Whether it’s the remains of an orbital minefield, a Shiva that lost guidance, or something worse, eventually, somebody will find something.”

But Tevos had heard something, an undercurrent in the woman’s tone. A hesitancy. Sparatus had shared the intelligence report from Canberra on the Spartans. Tevos knew that this woman, Kelly, had been callous if not downright antagonistic to the Turians from the expedition. A nuke on the surface was a serious threat to civilians. But a nuke in space? The damage should be isolated. So what was ‘something worse’?

“If you know something, Spartan, we need to hear it.”

The woman looked at the Lieutenant, who gave her an encouraging nod.

“On Reach, we learned that the UNSC had developed a new weapon. A bomb. They called it NOVA. More powerful than anything we’ve ever built. We rescued the Admiral in charge of the program during our escape.”

“And…?”

“He left a NOVA on the surface of Reach, rigged to a timer. As far as we know, it never went off. We also feared that with the loss of Reach, UNSC HIGHCOM might have authorized strikes on Covenant controlled worlds. Upon our return to the Sol system, we discovered we were right. Operation SUNSPEAR was greenlit, a final retaliatory strike against Covenant worlds.”

Tevos pinched her brows. It was her worst fears confirmed. When she had negotiated the nuclear rearmament of Triumph and Canberra, she had done it with a nagging voice in the back of her mind. A voice that told her she was giving the UNSC back the very weapons they would use to wage a scorched earth campaign. Luckily, that hadn’t yet come to pass. However, it seemed the final blows of the Human-Covenant War had let to land.

Sparatus, ever the military minded councilor asked, “what was the composition of these attacks?”

At this, the Lieutenant stepped forwards: “The details were unclear. They likely deployed a team via prowler or other stealth craft. It is likely that the team would have to physically deliver the weapon; it’s far too large to be used as a warhead on prowler-based munitions.”

At the mention of the UNSC stealth vessels, Tevos noticed a small tic in Valern’s otherwise visage. Probably still wishing he could get his hands on one.

Tevos interjected, “do we have any idea what the targets of the operation were?”

Frederic continued, “Negative, councilor. We do know the team was issued with a single NOVA device. After the Covenant found Earth, one final radio contact was made, authorizing a strike on Covenant worlds at the team’s discretion. It’s unlikely they would have reached Covenant space before the pulse.”

“Spirits,” Sparatus murmured.

A looming dread filled Tevos’ heart.

“Do you believe that the targets selected were military?” she asked. Frederic’s glance to the side told her all she needed to know. No.

“An eye for an eye, ma’am,” answered the petty officer, grimly.

Tevos felt her skin crawl, and her stomach felt sick. She understood, of course. She had seen firsthand the impact of the Covenant on the UNSC home system. She couldn’t imagine the countless other systems devastated by their war. It didn’t mean the conflict wasn’t easier to stomach when it was statistics on a screen. When she could pretend the UNSC wasn’t willing to commit atrocities of their own if it meant vengeance.

Sparatus was the first to shake off the silence pooling in the room, “if the bomb required manual deployment, what is the imminent danger? Surely there are hundreds of UNSC nukes drifting somewhere out there.”

Frederic answered, “the yield of the NOVA presents a unique risk to recovery by unknown forces.”

“How do you mean?” Tevos asked, the uncertain feeling in her gut building once again.

“NOVAs don’t kill cities. They kill planets.”

The clatter of phaeston fire echoed off the walls of Triumph’s firing range. Adjacent to the armory, the space had once served as a testing ground for UNSC and UNSCMC armorers to help ensure that Triumph’s small arms arsenal remained in working condition. The narrow range trailed maybe 100m along the length of the ship, nestling into the empty space between the MAC capacitor banks on either side of them. Holographic and steel targets were suspended and projected from the ceiling, some close, and some far. In the distance, the titanium bulkhead angled away from them, sheathed in anti-spall lining designed to suppress ricochets in the enclosed space.

Varso had been ordered to whip his team in preparation for a groundside deployment. Not that he hadn’t been trying to do just that since he first arrived on the UNSC cruiser. Exactly where this deployment was to take place, he hadn’t been told. He’d heard whispers of something called Halo, but without details, that much was useless. How was he supposed to prepare his team if he had no idea where they would be headed? The ship had been in slipspace for some time now, longer than it had taken them on their initial departure from the Sol system. Which meant they were heading even further into the unknown.

For now, all he could do was drill his team, and, as he was doing right now, ensure that his soldier’s aim was still up to the hierarchy’s lofty standards. So far, his usually haphazard team had impressed him. It seemed that if there was one thing a Turian never forgot, it was how to fire a rifle. That wasn’t to say there weren’t corrections that could be made here or there.

“Lean in a little more, corporal,” he said, and the soldier nodded in turn, his next burst felling one of the squat holograms downrange. Some Covenant species. It was weird, Varso thought, to be shooting at depictions of aliens he had never seen in person. But it was what the UNSC had, and it had far better optics than shooting at the lanky silhouettes of humans also stored in Triumph’s computers. Plus, the novelty helped keep his team’s focus downrange.

The phaeston was a very pleasant rifle to fire. It was smooth, and light, with internal recoil dampers that helped to minimize the kick of the rapid rifle. It was a soldier’s gun, and Varso hadn’t met an infantryman that didn’t like it. There was a reason the rifle had seen widespread adoption amongst the Turian military. Plus, its effectiveness downrange could not be exaggerated. When wielded by an experience Hierarchy squad, the phaeston would inflict a devastating haul of accurate fire on anything dumb enough to get in the way.

“Again,” he commanded, and his team opened fire on a fresh array of targets, shifting positions between every reload. Once more, his team surprised him with their efficiency, smoothly knocking down the targets. With every round, their groupings got tighter, their timing faster. Varso was pleased to finally see their progress. It seems that nearly a month without live fire hadn’t done much to dull their edge.

Maybe he would make it out of whatever waited on the other side of this slipspace jump after all.

The noise of the firing drill faded to the soft murmurs of his squad. And then he heard the sudden sound of a magazine slamming home to his right. Beside him, where he had sworn just seconds before was empty space, towered one of the Spartans, with a UNSC rifle in her hands. He nearly jumped, and his heart started hammering in his chest. Where had she come from? He hadn’t heard the door open, nor had he heard any footsteps. It was as if the Spartan had appeared from thin air.

It was their leader, or at least the leader that they left behind on Triumph when the fleet had split. Varso had seen her distinctive hair walking in and out of command meetings. Wherever the Spartans went in the Turian sections of the ship, rumors followed. Varso had seen her a handful of times, always with a sharp stare that seemed equal parts appraising and warning. It seemed to him that the Spartan had taken interest in his team, a frequent, unspeaking, expressionless, visitor to his status updates to captain Victus.

Now, as more and more Turians became aware of her presence in Varso’s silence, she held the rifle at rest, stepping confidently towards the firing line. The Turians in her path scrambled to get out of the way, clearing the Spartan a lane on the range. Mid-step, without even acknowledging the soldiers around her, she began.

“Misriah Armory MA5C assault rifle,” she took a pause as she stepped onto the firing line, “7.62x51mm in a 32-round magazine.”

She racked the rifle with a sharp pull on the charging handle on its side.

“Gas operated, short stroke,” with one hand, she slid ear plugs into her ears, before levelling the rifle down range. Head low, elbows tucked in close to her body, the Spartan leaned into the rifle, her massive frame somehow making the long rifle look small.

“Firm base, seat the butt in your shoulder. Remember your marksmanship fundamentals.” She paused, frozen in a perfect shooting stance, her finger resting on the safety.

“No bursts longer than 5 rounds. Give the recoil dampers time to do their job.” And without another word, the rifle erupted. The thundering roar echoed off the walls of the range, building on itself. Bright flashes violently spurt from the muzzle of the rifle. The Spartan flowed through her targets like a machine, neatly overlapping a hail of automatic fire on each target. The brass gracefully arced in a stream from ejection port of the rifle. Even between bursts, the Spartan didn’t even pause long enough to let the last cartridge hit the ground before she started again. In moments, it was over, the rifle clattering empty.

Varso’s ears rang as the Spartan looked up from the rifle, the only sound in the room was the clinking of spent rounds bouncing to a halt on the deck. spared a glance at the scoring terminal. The Spartan had left neat groupings in the center of each target, about the size of a large coin. Varso had no idea what the MOA of the MA5C was, but he suspected it wasn’t much smaller than what could be measured downrange.

The Spartan continued, reloading the rifle, and shoving it into the hands of a nearby Turian, taking his phaeston.

“The MA5C will become your greatest friend. It has saved my life.”

For the first time, she looked up at the Turian surrounding her, tired green eyes sweeping the room. Most of Varso’s squad wasn’t yet sure how to react. The soldier holding the human rifle cradled it like it might explode. They looked to Varso. He blinked twice, unsure, while the Spartan continued her tirade.

“And if you pay attention today, it will save yours.”

At that, Varso started. What was going on here? At first the Turian had thought it to be some kind of power play. A show of force to remind the Turians exactly who’s ship this really was. But now he wasn’t quite so sure.

“Sir,” he began, looking at the woman.

“Petty Officer,” replied the Spartan, expression undecipherable as she turned to face Varso.

“Petty Officer,” Varso corrected, “what is this?”

Varso thought he caught the faint flash of a smile cross the woman’s face, but it was gone long before he could be sure. She looked down at the phaeston in her hands, running her hand over the rifle’s sleek lines. With a satisfied tap on the lightweight rifle, she spoke: “welcome to red team.”

Whispers filled the room, and many members of his team looked around in confusion. The Spartan continued, “I’m here to make sure we’re all on the same page, and to get your team properly equipped.”

Now, the whispers turned to murmurings of indignation. Varso, fighting the same feeling of Turian pride rising in his gullet, replied, perhaps harsher than he should have, “petty officer, I can assure you, my soldiers are at their most lethal with a phaeston in their hands. I know you aren’t familiar with mass-effect weapons, but…”

“… the phaeston is a fantastic infantry weapon. Lightweight, with a minimal footprint. Incredible ammo capacity. Serviceable accuracy,” the Spartan interrupted as she turned the rifle in her hands, and even in handling the foreign rifle her deft hands moved with practiced confidence.

“And most importantly, world class penetration. Which is why you won’t be using them.”

Varso’s heart dropped, and he interjected, “Petty Officer. You can’t be serious.”

“By the time we exit slipspace, I want this entire unit qualified on the MA5C, M6G, and M90 weapon platforms.”

The empty silence in the room said more than any of them could. Varso could see the bitter curses mouthed by disbelieving Turians. He watched as their oldest members, veterans of decades of service, fought between their twin loyalties to the chain of command and their pride in Turian equipment. It seemed their commitment to stoicism won out, although Varso hoped the Spartan couldn’t recognize the scowls plastering his squads’ mandibles. They wouldn’t speak out, as much as Varso knew it was torturing them. At their silence, the Spartan turned to leave the compartment.

Varso’s team still looked to him for a response. He reached a talon out towards the Spartan’s shoulder.

Instead of coming to rest on her shoulder, Varso’s felt a jolt of crushing pain. His mind caught up to his body, only to find the Spartan was now facing him, his arm caught in an iron fist. He didn’t even see her turn. One moment she was facing away, the next his hand snatched like a varren in a trap, too fast for him to even blink.

And for a moment, the Spartan’s mask slipped. On the pale hand crushing his wrist, the knuckles flared white. Varso tried to take his hand back, but the Petty Officer’s grasp was iron. He fought to keep from showing the slowly building pain. Her eyes were crazed, pupils blown out with adrenaline and paranoia. The deep bags under her eyes seemed darker now than they had earlier. Varso’s team all took a step forward, but with a warning glance, Varso halted them in their steps.

“Don’t. Touch. Me.” came her warning, her gaze boring into Varso. Her voice cracked into a rasp, the tone no less grave. The human’s other hand was by her side, and Varso wasn’t sure if it was to reach for her sidearm or to deliver a fatal strike he would never see coming.

Varso let his arm go limp, an attempt a de-escalation, but asserted once more, “we need to know, Petty Officer.”

The Spartan looked down at where she had grabbed Varso’s wrist for a moment. Slowly, one by one, her fingers released. As Varso slowly withdrew his arm, the Spartan’s hand floated for a minute. The woman watched her own hand in front of her for a moment, before speaking: “this isn’t a debate. We start tomorrow, 0400.”

“We?”

The Spartan didn’t answer, instead walking towards the hatch, Turians quickly stepping aside to clear a path. As the doors slid open and the Spartan’s broad back slipped past the threshold, Varso called out.

“Petty Officer?” The Spartan gave no sign of stopping, and Varso added, “trust goes both ways.”

Varso thought he caught a flash of green glimpse back at him as the Spartan paused in the doorway, but before he could do anything about it, she vanished around the corner.

“Doctor?”

Like she had hundreds of times before in her life, Linda found herself summoned to Halsey’s side. Even when Linda was in command, there was still the unspoken arrangement; a near compulsion in the mind of every one of her comrades. When the doctor beckoned, they came.

Halsey summoned her to the operating theater of Triumph’s medical bay. The bay itself had quickly become the command point for first Fred’s and now Linda’s fragile remnant of humankind. But with Ash and Mark in cryo, Linda used just about every excuse she had to stay clear of medical. She knew she was running. Hopefully she had earned this one moment of cowardice.

Kelly’s damaged MK. V MJOLNIR had been set aside, hung neatly in the corner of the room. Judging by the singed wiring still dangling from the shielding modules, Halsey wasn’t much closer to repairing the armor than she had been weeks ago. Instead, the operating table where she had worked on the delicate components had been cleared. A fresh sterile sheet had been laid down, and neatly arranged on small tables to either side were rows of gleaming surgical tools, and behind them the robotic arms of the automated surgical systems. Halsey herself stood nearby clad in sterile scrubs neatly arranging the instruments, clearly waiting for the Spartan. Linda could hear the faint buzz of a sterile field generator suspended from the roof above the operating table. So, it was one of these visits.

At the sound of Linda’s voice, Halsey looked up from her work.

“Ah, thank you for your punctuality, Linda. Undress and we can begin.”

As Linda removed her fatigues, Halsey waited patiently. When Linda turned her back to the doctor, she hummed in affirmation.

“It appears the graft is healing well. Any new concerns I should know about?”

“No, ma’am,” Linda replied, tone terse. Linda tried not to look much at the graft that stretched across her back when she didn’t have to. She knew it was ugly. It stretched from between her shoulder blades all the way to the small of her back. A single sheet of unblemished skin, without the pockmarks from her childhood, nor the scars of adulthood. At its border was a thick margin of scar tissue, where the dead and dying remains of her tissues had been replaced by Halsey. New muscles. New organs. New bones. New skin. Linda sometimes thought about just how much of her body was grown in a vat.

Some nights, she would count the parts of her that her mother had grown, the elements of her anatomy untouched by ONI and the war. The list was never long enough to lull her to sleep.

Before long, after she had finished undressing, Halsey ushered her over to the table. At the doctor’s instruction, she sat on a chair near the foot of the operating table. Linda had long since lost the urge to know exactly what was being done to her body. Halsey would always tell them if asked, and for major surgeries they received a full briefing. But, for the Spartans, somewhere in the dozens of operations they received in their youth, most had learned it was easier to just do as they were told.

Nevertheless, it surprised her when she heard a buzz behind her head. Her tresses fell to the ground in clumps, as the doctor ran the military issued shears through her hair. It had been years since she had buzzed her hair. It only took a few minutes to be cut away. And then Halsey declared she was ready. Linda tried not look to back at the tangles left behind.

She was instructed to lay down face down on the operating table, her head supported by a jig affixed to the apex of the rest. She heard the clinking of tools as Halsey went to her table. She smelled the pungent odor of UNSC surgical disinfectant, as Halsey applied it to the base of her skull. At once, she put it together.

“A new neural lace?” she asked the doctor.

“I had to make do with what Triumph had on hand. I had to modify a command implant, but it should work in the short term.”

Linda felt the sharp injection into the back of her neck. A dull tingling spread from the injection, and shortly, she could no longer feel the doctor’s careful touch. The muscles in her neck went limp as the local anesthetic spread.

“This implant will allow you to operate alongside an AI in the field. Like John and Cortana. I suspect it will prove invaluable in the coming months.”

Linda felt pressure build at the base of her skull. A gentle tug sent sparks flying across her eyes. Linda squeezed her eyes shut, but still, the flashes lit up her vision. And then, for a moment, it all stopped. The whirring arms of the automatic surgeon’s assistant began moving with a speed unmatched by any human surgeon. She felt the painless draw of a scalpel across the back of her head.

There was another short pause before another sharp pressure. And then her entire world turned, as if the entire cruiser was spinning like a bullet. Her vision blurred, and a sudden sensation of nausea roiled in her gut. The flashes sparked again in her eyes, and she became aware of a dull ringing in her ears, distinct from the high-pitched whine of the surgical theater. And then, in another wave, came a stronger, more overwhelming bout of nausea. Linda focused on her breathing, the in and the out, the rise and fall. The wave receded for a moment, before creeping back.

She could feel Halsey looming behind her, checking the incision sites to make sure the surgeon suite had correctly performed the operation. She quickly dabbed up the traces of blood left behind by the machine.

“John reported nausea and visual artifacts in the initial moments after installation. It should be temporary.”

Linda didn’t respond as the doctor turned away to record something in her notes. Instead, she sat up, hoping to still her spinning mind for just a moment. Another wave of nausea fought its way up her throat. Her vision tunneled briefly, before returning to normal. And then, for a moment, it felt like the entire world seemed to shift in and out of focus. A thundering pain pulsed through her head. Halsey’s words echoed in her mind. Temporary. If John could do it, so could she.

She was responsible for this team. If she needed to ride out some nausea, so be it. And then her stomach roiled again, and Linda had to fight back the sensation rising in her throat, and the pounding in her temples intensified. She curled her hands into fists, and clenched tightly.

Noticing Linda still lingering near the operating table, Halsey turned and asked, “Is everything all right Linda?”

“Green,” Linda managed through another wave of blurring vision.

“Well, you’re dismissed then Petty Officer.”

The corridors on Triumph’s upper decks were dark as Aurelia made her way back to her quarters. The lighting in the area was down for maintenance, and especially in the minimally populated upper sections of the titanic cruiser, there was little need for urgence. The dim red glow of emergency lighting marked the hatches and doorways and gave the Asari enough light to navigate by. It was peaceful up here, after hours. At times it could be exhausting working on this ship, alone with so many countless Turians. Not many Asari had volunteered for the assignment, and even fewer had been accepted. Living with Turians taught one a certain tolerance for their mannerisms and habits, but sometimes, a girl just needed a break.

It’s why she found her late night strolls along Triumph’s empty corridors so relaxing. It gave her a way to reset, where it was just her and the ship. Titanium alloy and crystal lattices didn’t judge. Perhaps that was also why Lucy seemed to capture so much of her attention. Aurelia had met with the Spartan a few times since their first encounter in engineering. The young soldier always seemed to manage a warm welcome to the Asari, when many of the Turian crewmembers couldn’t care less. Aurelia hoped that it wasn’t just Lucy’s silence allowing her to believe what she wanted to believe, and that they had indeed made a genuine connection. Aurelia still hadn’t asked the Spartan the questions she was most afraid of asking: questions about the war, and about the human culture that war erased. She could see the pain sometimes, in the Spartan’s eyes, when they touched on the war.

More than anything, she wanted to understand. But she didn’t want to hurt Lucy. Her mind told her that the Spartan had handled far worse, but her heart always cut her off. Perhaps it was cruel to ascribe such a child-like innocence to a veteran soldier. Aurelia hoped that Lucy didn’t mind.

As Aurelia’s thoughts wandered, she turned a corner and froze. In the dark, a massive shape was looming in the corridor, silhouetted by the red emergency lighting, hunched over and leaning against the wall. And then the figure retched, back convulsing. A disgusting splatter followed the sound, liquid against titanium. Aurelia recoiled. The shadow groaned before retching again, a sickly noise. Aurelia couldn’t move, unseen at the end of the corridor.

The shadow dropped down slowly into a crouch, head hanging low, with one hand still against the wall. A wet cough and the figure spat. Aurelia could hear heavy breathing down the hall.

And when the figure began retching a third time, Aurelia called out, “Hello?”. The shape immediately shifted and looked at her in the doorway. The figure then stood, turned, and staggered quickly away without so much as a word. It was only then that the acidic smell of vomit reached Aurelia’s nose.

The Sins of our Fathers - Jabber_the_very_wocky (2024)
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