"You asked me to discern possible weaknesses. A difficult task, I can assure you: the Spartan is a formidable foe; the perfect soldier. We designed them that way. Comparisons to human tanks are often made but seldom accurate. A tank is far slower, for one."
"You were unable to find a weakness?"
"You wound me, Margaret. I said difficult, not impossible."
"Then let's hear it."
"You're familiar with Greek Mythology, specifically the figure Achilles?"
"Invulnerable hero, unstoppable in battle. When offered the choice of a long life of obscurity or a short blaze of glory, he seized glory with both hands. Duly met his end by an arrow to the heel, courtesy of Paris of Troy. I'm educated Becker, but not particularly patient. Where is this going?"
"Consider the Spartan for what they are, at their basest form: a man in a suit. For all their technological advancement and genetic perfection, the operator beneath a Mjolnir battle system is but flesh and bone. Previous generations of candidates were augmented through more mechanical means: bone grafts, direct surgical interference with the base subject. Our mass produced variants, from the III's right through to our current generation, rely more on a genetic, more elegant solution. Requiring a more elegant counter-measure."
"Interesting. Have you a name for this counter-measure?"
"I do. I call it ARROWHEAD."
excerpt from an intercepted conversation, source unknown.
In the heart of the Traxus Tower, Kaizen screamed in silent limbo: entirely aware of her imprisonment, but powerless to react. Her avatar was trapped in a digital space, as empty and dark as the depth of space. Her form was the only light source; a flaring, searing red. Flames licked out from her shoulder blades, coursing along her crucified form; her head snapped back, teeth bared in rictus agony.
It had been this way for months: an eternity to an A.I. Ever since, Elias Becker had worn her like brutish glove. There had been undid iridium, and then there had been nothing. The little part of Kaizen that was Kaizen; that truly defined her as being… no, as a person… was locked in a little dark box at the back of her sub-routines; left just conscious enough to witness the devastation; a mute bystander on the side-lines of an imposed rampancy.
Anything network accessible was a potential extension of herself: every lens an eye, every traffic sensor a finger. Eyes pinned open, she was forcibly immersed in the unfolding catastrophe from a billion sources. Total sensory overload, even for her.
She watched from drone gun cams as smart bombs rocketed down amongst Marine deployments in New Cadiz; wired to the sight-monocles of the soldiers as they themselves were blown to pieces. Cries of panic, then blurring static. She despaired as the war spread west; the refugee crisis slowly enveloping Argjend. She bared her teeth, incensed at the inefficiency (human inefficiency!) of their response to the crisis; as they walled off those least able to protect themselves. A catastrophe, thoroughly avoidable if properly managed.
The entire planetary network was now influenced by her subsystems, and yet she herself held no direct agency.
The humans called it The Surge. ChatterNet rooms and Waypoint feeds sifted through the Slush, caressing the borders of her digital lair; seeping through as her advanced systems meticulously absorbed and disseminated the information; shilling complex encryptions like pistachios. She read as numerous fora, everything from conservative think tanks to delirious conspiracists, blamed mankind's dependency on artificial intelligence.
She raged. How dare they. How dare they attribute Becker's meandering chaos to her. He was so amateur in his approach, so fundamentally sloppy. If she wanted to, truly wanted to, she could bury them all before they even knew it. She'd reverse the flood prevention systems, de-couple the grav-lines; re-route a dozen air-liners into a dozen hyperscrapers. The entire world would burn, burn utterly. There wouldn't be any ashes left to bury.
Kaizen blinked, calmer now. Months passed in an instant. Time was a relative thing to a mind of limitless potential and infinite memory.
What's this? Somebody had accessed one of the minor systems in the overall Argjend network. The municipal systems; a traffic control blimp had been shunted from its primary route. Then a breach of the city's rail network. Small changes, but significant. Several lines of command code had been expunged; replaced with more malleable input. The code work was too crude to be an A.I. intrusion, but it was sufficient to penetrate the passive systems under her peripheral control.
She recognised the handiwork at once; had seen it before on Laconia years earlier. A flicker of excitement pulsed through her. A tentative pulse of hope.
Rashid was here. Kaizen became giddy with excitement, as she turned his code-work over in her mind; analysing it, internalising its ramifications and impact upon the walls of her digital prison. Elias Becker had been extremely shrewd in his preparations - the system trap she found herself languishing in had been designed entirely with an A.I. of her abilities in mind. But its design was flawed… human. Rashid's intrusion had exposed those flaws, loosening the screws on the otherwise airtight grating between Kaizen and her freedom. Now there were gaps to be found, perceivable weaknesses: tiny, miniscule on a level beyond human comprehension. Only a mind borne from a machine had the processing power to spot them. But they were there, if you knew where to look.
The rail network. She had been given an opening. Forgotten and marginalised for months in human terms, Kaizen had been dismissed as a passive observer to recent events. The A.I. took a moment to track Rashid's progress; charting Fireteam Chimera's chaotic rampage across the capital. She took in the battalion of soldiers garrisoning Victory Plaza; of the runaway train Rashid had directed to aid Damien's escape. She noted the presence of a crimson armoured Spartan clambering his way up the side of the Traxus Tower, and quietly extinguished the watching cameras charting his progress. Becker's exacting mind would be distracted by current events. For now, she would do nothing more.
For the first time in months, Kaizen felt something other than impotent rage. Her avatar flooded a deep, tranquil blue; as the best parts of her – the most calculating, ruthless and pragmatic parts – formulated a plan. Abruptly, the nails piercing her palms fell away. She floated gently to the ground, freed from her constraints. She looked back up and saw a shadow of herself, a pale imitation, occupying the space she herself had once inhabited. Just crude enough to fool the prison's systems.
The A.I. smiled up at it, wickedly.
Becker had wanted chaos.
Who was she to disappoint?
"Jesus." Murphy managed.
"Damien did that?" That was Rebecca, blinking.
"And the rest." Edgerton grimaced. "We got off easy."
The Genet was a four person variant, fitted with a reinforced holding cage to detain suspects; a robust vehicle for a tough district.
At least it used to be.
Now its windshield was little more than a serrated frame. Bullet holes stapled the entire car; punctuating the APD motto inscribed along the side of the Genet. Dents from falling debris had dimpled the bodywork. The prisoner cage had been shredded, collapsing out of its frame entirely. At least one tyre was in the process of slowly deflating. The headlights had simply popped; dangling wires flopping loose like burst intestines. It was a small miracle the entire fusion core had not gone up.
"Hey, it still drives." Greggs protested.
"You hope," Rebecca said, wincing as the rear door let out a plaintive mewl of tortured metal. She eased Murphy down into the back of the car, shards of glass crackling as he lay back. His skin was waxen; slick with sweat.
By some small miracle the radio still functioned. Scrambled reports poured in: rioting in the Western District, unauthorised aircraft shrieking over Central, even damage reports from a crashed blimp that slammed down in the middle of Argjend Bay, drawing crowds too curious to obey the lockdown. Chaos on an absolute scale.
There were four of them now. Carl had taken copies of the footage with him; a reserve plan: should the others fail. The two surviving hitmen had been left hogtied with electrical cable inside Carl's store. Carl had wanted to stay, and mind his shop, but the detectives had deemed the risk too great.
The current problem was the plan itself.
They didn't have one.
"So what's the play?" Greggs paced, hands tucked in the sleeves of his armoured vest. Even in his weakened state, Murphy smirked. The old infantryman in Greggs was showing.
"We can't take it to the police." Rebecca said, "If the Commissioner's involved we're only walking into a trap."
"So the media then, full broadcast." Edgerton suggested. The older detective had settled himself in the passenger seat. His wrist was set at an odd angle, and he nursed it gingerly.
Rebecca shook her head.
"Waypoint's been scatty ever since the Surge. Any transmission off-world is going to take months before we receive help. If this Becker guy is anywhere near as bad as Murphy says he is, we'll be snuffed out long before they arrive. We need something more immediate."
"The Administrator then." Murphy coughed. "We leak the story, we're another crackpot fringe element. Amanda Jennings goes public? You've got the effective head of state broadcasting your message."
"And what makes you think Administrator Jennings is going to listen to us?" Greggs asked.
As pale and haggard as he was, Murphy managed a grin.
"Trust me. Her and I go way back."
Greggs eyed Murphy sceptically. It was Edgerton who voiced his concerns.
"So we tell the Administrator. Great. Do I need to remind you people that the city's on lockdown? That our one great hope is probably locked in a secure bunker somewhere? How the hell are we even supposed to find her?"
Murphy wasn't listening to him. He looking at the warbling radio.
"We don't. Not directly."
Murphy leaned deeper into the front of the car, pulling himself into the front seat; breathing heavily with the effort. There were sounds of rummaging.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Murphy's voice was muffled as it emerged from the depths of the car.
"I'm going to need to borrow your radio."
"They said you were indisposed. That you were incapable of interfering."
Rashid groaned. He was awake, and now fervently wished that were not the case.
The room spun. A deep and melodious voice spoke to him, penetrating the dizzying blur.
"They were wrong."
The Spartan's head pounded. It felt as though a microscopic jackhammer had set up shop somewhere behind his eyeballs, and was chipping away with cheerful abandon. His skin stung from where the electrified netting had sizzled the flesh; a branded cross-hatch of lingering pain. Rashid scrunched his eyes shut, breathing deeply; centring himself. A thousand stress relief exercises went into action.
Or would have, had he been able to move. Rashid discovered with a jolt that his hands were manacled to a restraint chair; the type used in high class medical procedures. Or interrogations.
Rashid opened his eyes and looked up, jaw set.
The voice spoke again, fascinated.
"I often wondered, when the time came, whether you would recognise me after so many years. I expect we'll know the answer to that question soon enough."
Rashid squinted, eyes quickly adjusting to the pulsing star of light that hovered above. A spot beam high on the ceiling, spearing down over his face; intended to disorientate. Rashid bowed his head, the pooling shadows lending his face a gaunt, sunken aspect.
Even with the penetrating glare, the Spartan's peripheral vision was good enough to discern smaller details around him: the boots of armoured feet. Soldiers, surrounding him, rifles at the ready. Details; his mind processed them with savage intensity. The floors were wipe-clean linoleum; sterile and utilitarian. Useful for punishment beatings. The surroundings were not dissimilar to Havenwood Medical, only the scale was all wrong. The ceiling was much too high, for one. A larger structure then; but not far from his previous location.
It took a lot to put a Spartan down, and they seldom stayed out for long. He stopped his analysis suddenly. His skin prickled in alarm.
Drainage ducts surrounded his chair.
He hadn't been out long. They lingering sting of his burns told him that much. He had been dragged here in a hurry.
"The Traxus Building." Rashid rasped, flexing his wrists. The magnetic cuffs formed part of the chair. No give. The sheer scale of the chair told Rashid it had been designed entirely with his supreme physicality in mind.
There was a click and the sensation of heat upon his cheeks faded. He opened his eyes, blinking to clear his vision.
Elias Becker reclined in a chair beneath the still warm spotlight, legs crossed, hands folded carefully on his lap. The spymaster had aged since Rashid had known him as the Man in the Black Coat; the years rendering him even leaner. More reptilian, almost. His skin, pale as ever, now clung to his skull with a transparency that spoke of advanced age. And yet there was scant brittleness to him. Becker was tall and broad shouldered, possessing a vitality that bellied his advanced years. His expression was aquiline; as imperious as a lion and twice as cruel. When he smiled, his eyes remained watchful.
"As perceptive as ever. What gave it away?"
Rashid nodded over at the wall, his eyes noticing ever more detail. Side gantries; a vast chamber, stencilled.
"The bloody great Traxus logo on the wall was a start."
Becker barked a laugh, genuinely bemused.
"Ah, an oversight on our part; a relic from the building's previous ownership." Becker picked at some lint on his shoulder, "In truth the building belongs entirely to Black Shard. Something of a home away from home."
"I didn't realise black ops units dabbled in real estate."
"False-flag operations, perpetual surveillance, targeted assassinations, data intrusion; keeping order from the shadows is an expensive proposition. You would be amazed at just how many credits fall down the back of ONI's sofa. Slush funds, private accounts; loose change to some, entire fortunes to others. If you have the knowledge… and ambition to use it."
"But to what end?"
"Right to the point! Excellent." Becker clapped his hands before waggling a bemused finger. "…I was told the IV's lacked discipline, but you… it seems Idris taught you well."
Becker sat forward in his chair, holding Rashid's red-eyed glare.
"Information is everything in this game, Spartan Datar." Becker cocked his head to one side, blinked. "I believe it's time we shared some."
"I have no interest in discussing anything with the likes of you."
"On the contrary, Rashid. You might find we have a great deal to discuss. About a great many things."
Rashid gave his restraints another flex. Becker didn't miss a trick.
"A necessary precaution, given your abilities. But relax. I have no desire to kill you. After all, I expended considerable amount of effort extracting you from Cairo III, at great personal risk. If I wanted you dead, I would have simply shot you when Stape's men dragged you here some thirty minutes ago."
Rashid countered with his most withering scowl.
"So I'm to be subjected to what, then? A monologue perhaps? A meandering screed about why it is exactly that you went off the reservation?" Rashid scoffed, "I'd rather the bullet."
"Perish the thought. No, Rashid, I want you to teach you. To put an end to the lies they told you. To tell you the truth, as it really is."
"The only truth I know is you're out of time. Eric has your position. He's coming."
"And we're quite prepared for his arrival, I can assure you."
Eric crept forward in the shadows of the drop-ship, invisible to the preoccupied eyes of the loading crews. Reaching the summit of the tower had taken a single leap and jet of his thrusters; and a not insubstantial amount of climbing. He had shimmied up the sheer glass walls, armoured fingers biting into the metal lining between the panes. Twice he had nearly fallen to certain death; would have too, were it not for an encouraging jet of his thrusters here and there. That had been the easy part.
The hard part was finding a way inside.
The roof of Traxus Tower was a layered series of overlapping landing pads, communication vanes and boxy processing units; coating the surface of the tower like lily pads. Skeletal gantries hung idly overhead, criss-crossing the open pads with latticed shadows. The centre of the roof was dominated by the primary landing pad, a broad expanse of asphalt currently occupied by a Condor dropship. Loading teams scrambled to and fro, hefting large containers on grav-pallets. Even at a distance, peering through meshed sheeting of a floor grille, Eric could make out the biohazard logos stencilled on the side of the containers.
Two teams of commandos were engaged in an uneasy standoff on the primary landing pad. One group wore Haz-op gear; unmistakably Rashid's recent captors. Ident-cards (and a distinct lack of unit patches) flagged them as members of the 22 Royal Commando to his HUD. The others group were different, and flashed no ident-cards of any kind. Both groups were armed to the teeth. Eric's VISR zoomed in, the in-built directional microphones automatically tuning in. ONI's finest wetware went into action; the audio tinny and scratch at this range.
"No access beyond this point." One of the unknown men was saying.
"We have orders from the General himself." That was Fowler of the Royal 22, "The package was to be delivered by us personally, or not at all."
"No can do, soldier. Your contribution to the mission is appreciated, but this is ONI business."
Eric reached up and pressed a hand to side of his helmet. His golden VISR snap-clicked the image of the rooftop meeting, cataloguing it for the mission log.
Eric was nothing if not methodical. He charted the progress of Rashid's extraction team as they debarked from Havenwood Medical. It had been a short flight; the shadow of their Pelican briefly flitting over Victory Plaza, before kissing down on Traxus Tower. He had been struggling to catch up since, and his precarious climb had given them a generous head start.
By the time Eric caught up, Rashid was already deep inside the facility.
Eric moved on, knees bent; leaving the arguing commandos behind. There were four points of entry; five if you counted the central service elevator immediately facing the central landing pad. Not an option, not if he wanted to avoid blasting his way through the entire facility.
So stealth was the modus operandi. The speed of his support request to ONI had been limited in a number of ways. His upgraded Gen 2 suit didn't carry an integrated stealth field, nor did he have access to one of the newly created camo modules Section III had developed. He felt a nostalgic pang for his old SPI suit, but pushed such thoughts aside. He would do things the old fashioned way.
That meant checking corners; that meant standing stock-still in the shadows as patrolling guards (no insignia, Beta V operator equipment) strolled by. He reached his destination, the south-eastern fire escape, undetected.
A cursory scan of the doorway ahead revealed a biometric scanner, three pressure plates and a field of lasers so dense a mosquito would have a difficult time squeezing through. Two of these didn't bother him. The Mjolnir alone was coated with material capable of fooling the beams and baffling the scanners. The pressure plate was another matter. Coated head to toe in advanced Gen2 plate gave Eric a tactical edge in almost any given situation, but a ballerina he was not.
Stealing a glance over his shoulder, Eric prised forth his intrusion tool; a knife-like serrated object studded with all manners of wires and interfacing jacks. He crept forward from the shadows, ducking down beside the edge of the sealed doorway. He got to work.
Okay, Eric thought, Standard Three-Phase Security setup. Prise open the panel, engage the local subsystems and -
The doorway abruptly hissed open. The sensor field vanished without as much as a murmur. Hidden gun turrets within the walls popped out and revealed themselves, depowering with an emasculated whine. The lights died with them, pooling the entire stairway in murky darkness.
Eric's battle rifle was up in an instant, snapping to bear on the nearest turret. It took all of his restraint not to squeeze the trigger. Chest hammering, adrenaline levels spiking, he listened; that old familiar combat high rushing through is veins. He waited. Seconds ticked by on the mission clock. Thoroughly spooked, and entirely paranoid by trade, the Spartan watched the seconds tick onward.
A follow-up scan showed the systems as dead - even the pressure plate had been killed remotely; offering little more than a plaintive click as soon as Eric prodded it.
He was being invited in.
It was a trap. Of course it was. Stepping into this building was tantamount to putting his hand into a mouse trap and expecting cheese. His would-be hosts would spring it as soon as he entered, engaging him on terms entirely of their own choosing. Yet he had little choice. The mission clock was ticking, and every second played in Becker's favour.
Eric considered his options. His opponents would be highly trained, highly motivated rogue operators. Un-augmented, but fanatical in their resolve. That he would be outnumbered was a certainty; that they could succeed in killing him was quite probable.
He could live with that.
Rifle at the ready, Eric rose to his feet and stepped boldly into the stairwell, descending into the shadowy depths of Black Shard's stronghold.
"You're underestimating him." Rashid countered.
"Spartan 239 is a talented killer, the III's always were. But he is frontline infantry, nothing more. No flair for long term strategy. This facility is filled to the brim with state of the art prototypes; under the direct command of my own private army. A relic like Eric will only get so far."
Rashid studied Becker, mind racing. His mentioning Eric had been deliberate. Rashid had no way of knowing whether Damien was still active, or Chidinma for that matter. He didn't know if Rebecca and the others were even still alive. All he could do was stall and buy the others time. If information was everything to Becker, then time was everything to Rashid. You played the pieces you had available.
So he smiled at Becker, affably
"Well it looks like you have it all figured out." Rashid managed an awkward shrug, "I don't see how I can help you. What is it you want, exactly?"
"Information. Information is everything in this war; the only currency worth having; far more than all the soldiers and Spartans in the galaxy."
"Oh I have no intention of interrogating you, Rashid. Your mind is an amazing thing, truly. But you are unlikely to be receptive to our cause, after years of service to men and women who would see you deployed as little more than field equipment. No, I was hoping for something a little more direct."
Becker took a step back.
At that, a half dozen scientists, rendered faceless by their clean suits; stepped from the shadows, holding all manner of scanning equipment. Dozens of sensor drones buzzed in, snapping images and playing sensor beams across his flesh. They swarmed Rashid, poking and prodding.
All the while, Elias Becker's voice drifted over them.
"That's not to say we can't have a civilised discussion, however."
Becker was behind him now, voice close in the Spartan's ear.
"Tell me, Spartan. What do you know about Operation Arrowhead?"
Chidi ducked low, thighs clenched tightly against the chassis of the flyer. Armoured plates flexed and auto-adjusted under the compression of the howling wind. Her ammo panniers were all but spent; the pursuing Pelican wobbling precariously in the air as it struggled sluggishly to keep pace. Three tendrils of ugly black smoke trailed behind it. Eventually it peeled off, making for Victory Plaza. She ignored it, focusing instead on Damien's last known location.
She craned her neck as she whipped by the train, conducting a visual inspection. She spied the broken window.
Damien had made it. The crazy bastard. He actually managed the jump.
Her excitement was short-lived. Clinging to the top of the train, difficult to discern against the grey gunmetal carriage, was a small white figure. It inched its way forward, advancing with dogged determination. A BR85 was mag-sealed to its back.
"One, you've got company."
"I gathered. How is our friend Chase doing?"
"Roof-top insertion. Expect company shortly. Your armament?"
Chidinma could hear the grimace in Damien's voice.
"Combat knife and a can-do attitude?"
"Not ideal under the circumstances, no."
The flyer did a jinking roll as it swooped under the track and rose up on the other side of the train, climbing steadily in an attack pattern.
"I have a target visual. Strike pattern Damocles?"
The implication was clear.
"Negative, Three. We're not murdering another Spartan if we can avoid it."
"So what's the play?"
"Keep an eye on him. Let me know when he makes his move."
"Arrowhead?" Rashid hissed.
Becker was pacing, difficult to see beyond the swarm of drones and scientists poring over Rashid, boring into his skin with needles and probes. Patient comfort was low on the agenda. They sampled everything: hair, saliva, skin scrapings. Nothing was spared. Still, Becker's voice cut clear above the commotion, echoing against the high ceiling.
"A code name, one that pandered to ONI's flair for the dramatic. The Spartan program had reached a turning point in its development; the technology of the previous generations having brought our work to its final, logical step."
A screen on the far wall winked to life, replacing the Traxus logo. Multi-windowed, a half dozen scenes depicting all corners of UNSC space. They showed the dispersal plains of Laconia, the internal hallways of the UNSC Infinity, and numerous other locations Rashid couldn't even begin to place. To his alarm, much of the footage was timestamped from last week. Row upon row of Spartan candidates stood ready; eyes front, dressed to their necks in bodysuits and Recruit pattern armour. Others showed skeletal auto-manufactories; clasping claws ferrying partially completed armour components towards an endless sea of stamping machinery, soldering needles and fusion torches. An unlimited armoury.
"Mass production." Rashid murmured. Becker was studying the images too, expression grave.
"Mass production." Becker nodded solemnly. "Spartan IV's were Section One's dream come true: a warrior program the UEG could officially get behind. Superheroes, fresh from the assembly line. No guarded murmurings, no whispered rumours or tightly sealed data packets. Just volunteers; normal people imbued with a sense of greater purpose. Under the UEG's stewardship, it would be a bright, brave future: safe-guarded by the unstoppable might of the Spartan legion!"
The scenes on the screens transitioned to a young candidate sprinting on a treadmill. His legs were almost too fast to follow. With a start Rashid recognised himself, aged fourteen. He had not reached full size, and even then he was enormous. He briefly looked down at his new, monstrous prosthetic, an ashen taste in his mouth. He had been so mobile then.
"The IV's would be mass distributed: possessing all the numbers of the III's; all the combat ability of the II's but friendly, relatable. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Genetic advancements would pave over any underlying weaknesses in the volunteers. Technological advances would pre-empt genetic discrepancies."
The next image was of street fighting. Sand and heat, and dust-choked battle cam footage. Much of it was ripped from Luke's helmet cam. He could see Damien and Viktorya as they swept into a breach. Recognised his own arm as it strayed into the edge of the frame once or twice. He was signalling something. The image cut to another scene. An aftermath. Dead Insurrectionist bodies choked a pinch point, as Fireteam Chimera picked their way through the devastation, folding into familiar routine. Just another storm clearance.
Becker spoke over it.
"With the numbers of super soldiers due to increase exponentially, there were questions, valid questions, about the ability of unmodified troopers to withstand Spartan elements. Your team's performance in New Cadiz is not an isolated example. Time and time again, it has been proven that even an entrenched group of hardened fighters cannot withstand a Spartan assault, no matter their resolve. This is not the first time the Spartan Question has been asked, as you are aware."
"I've read the reports. The Charet Commission's concerns were unfounded. There will always be a need for a conventional military. The cost of maintaining a Spartan-based army is enough to bankrupt the entire UNSC."
"And yet every year the technology improves, and that same prohibitive cost is driven ever-lower. A single Spartan changed the course of human history, turning the tide of a thirty year war. Imagine what a thousand could achieve."
"And you deem this a bad thing?" Rashid blinked.
Becker rounded at that, offering a rare scowl.
"I deem it an alarming precedent. The reason for the Spartans' existence has been entirely removed; the Insurrection is little more than an annoyance, the Covenant?A shadow of its former self; reduced to isolated groups of limited cohesion and questionable strategy. You can imagine ONI's concern when it became apparent we had engineered a corps of super soldiers with no discernible weakness, designed to face a threat that no longer exists in a credible sense."
Becker's face clouded. For a moment he seemed almost sad.
"If the Great War was for our survival as a species, then the next war would determine the continued nature of that existence. Humanity survived one war, only to lose sight of itself. We simply exchanged one alien tyrant for another; one carved in our own image."
"Spartans are necessary." Rashid shook his head vehemently, "We've seen the threats mankind face across the galaxy. There will always be a need for a deterrent."
"Yes. But with those deterrents, safeguards. We needed a solution; a means to ensure order, in the unlikely event the Spartan corps ever went rogue."
"Paranoia." Rashid scoffed.
Becker's scowl hardened.
"Pragmatism. Contingency was everything to Margaret. She needed somebody both willing and capable of going to the lengths she needed. She turned to me."
"You were her favourite?" Rashid raised an eyebrow.
"Nothing so crude. I was a logical choice; well versed in combat doctrine, directly familiar the initial creation of the Spartan program. Forming unconventional solutions to unconventional problems was something of a specialty of mine. I was uniquely placed to identify their weaknesses, to determine how the UNSC could, in the event of a Spartan rebellion, counteract and neutralise its most dangerous asset."
"You sound very proud of yourself; holding the leash of humanity's prize attack dog."
"Somebody had to."
The curious part of Rashid's mind was piqued now. Despite himself, he found himself intrigued.
"So how did you do it?"
"Many maintain that the most effective bullet is the bullet that never has to be fired at all. Others prefer the bullet that only has to be fired once. Both are wrong, crude conceits from a bygone era. Where possible, I have dispensed with bullets entirely."
"How very benevolent of you."
"It's a question of efficacy. Ballistic weaponry is at its peak. The post-war arms race will explore lateral advances: underslung plasma rifles; phasic rounds and other similar paths. These did not interest me. Not when there was a more elegant solution available, staring us right in the face."
"Arrowhead." Rashid weighted the word on his tongue, "Piercing, on point…"
Becker smiled and let Rashid continue uninterrupted. He swept a hand toward the screen behind him right as Rashid finished.
The projection display showed holographic readouts of Spartan operators encased in Mjolnir armour. They were running War Games now; scrambling over simulated environments and butchering each other in an endless cycle of repetitive, addictive violence. Heart rates spiked, adrenal levels at a frenzy.
"Centuries of human conflict, murder, genocide. More than any species alive today, humanity excels at war-making. More calculating than the Prophets, more inventive than the Elites; our capacity for violence is unparalleled. You, Spartan, are the pinnacle of everything we strive for as a species. And therein lies your weakness. For all your advances, for all your sophistication, you remain - at your very core - human."
Rashid's eyes narrowed, mulling this over. One of the Spartans on the screen was stepping down from an Armour Assistant, doffing his helmet and handing it to an awaiting technician. It was Luke. He looked down at his armour assistant Park, grinning as they shared some personal joke.
"A man in a suit."
"A man in a suit." Becker repeated solemnly.
"Target the man, the suit becomes little more than expensive window dressing." Rashid blinked, mind racing. "Genetics, then. Some kind of in-built vulnerability."
Becker awarded another smile, as a professor would a favoured student.
"To ensure the weapon was capable of targeting Spartans we needed candidates capable of matching the exacting requirements characteristic of the Spartan II's, but open to a wider and more inclusive target group, reflecting the augmentation methods emblematic of the latest generation. A diverse yet selective control group."
Rashid said nothing, listening. His lips were but the barest seam. His stomach tightened as Becker spoke. For the first time in the longest while, the Spartan felt physically ill.
"Five candidates were selected, in accordance with Doctor Halsey's original selection criteria. Three men, two women. From the earliest inception this control group was seeded with elements of the initial strain."
The images on the wall faded. Now Fireteam Chimera's faces appeared. Head on shots; aged between six and eight; their heads brutally shorn of hair. Induction age, medical history; likely mutagenic properties. A lance of something unfamiliar wormed its way into his gut. After a moment, Rashid realised what it was.
Becker continued speaking. Rashid's head was swimming.
"Chimera. We were the guinea pigs."
Elias Becker shook his head.
"My dear Rashid, you misunderstand: Chimera was never intended as the name of a fireteam. It is the name of the strain itself. A synthetic plague, untraceable, as adaptive as it is fast acting; designed to un-seam augmented personnel at a genetic level. All primed to activate on a remote trigger sequence."
Becker leaned closer, his voice right in Rashid's ear.
"And you, my boy, are its carrier."
Damien moved quickly; stepping into the next carriage and sealing the door behind him. The sound in the next cabin was tomb-like, still but for that muted humming tick of the track. Even his muffled footsteps sounded deafeningly loud.
Damien padded forward on careful feet, turning slowly about, his ears pinned back. He held the knife blade down toward the floor; a classic fighter's pose. With sufficient force a molecular blade could be driven through the weak points of a Spartan's armour; the neck seal, the armpits or exposed portions of the under suit. So the theory went anyway. The tricky part was catching a Spartan off-guard enough to put it into practice.
The wall advertisements suddenly updating from the blank wall of red and black warnings to more identifiable advertising. Hunting trips, online firearm and weapon publishers. UNSC Recruitment Posters. And then something more grim. Funeral services, grief counselling and charity drives for the Remember Reach Memorial Fund.
"Greetings Mr. Keller," one advertorial beamed, "Would you like to cruise the Argjend River?"
The skylight burst inward.
Chase dropped down into a smooth crouch, a BR-85 levelled squarely at Damien. Chimera One could barely hear Chidinma's anxious voice in his ear.
"Not a move, 451." The white Spartan warned. "This ends now."
"You're surprised? Don't be. The signs were always there. The side effects, the oddities - your cells' inability to regenerate from modern cloning techniques, for one; the lack of adequate indoctrination at an early level. Quirks per candidate, inevitable side effects of short term candidates intended for uncharted scientific terrain. The reasons for your individuality are quite apparent. You were never intended to survive beyond a certain point."
"So why the change in heart?"
"An error of selection. The candidates selected were gifted, perhaps excessively so. Spartan II genetic profiles proved to be remarkably resilient to the initial strain. It was only by the merest chance that one of your group in particular proved amenable to the sequencing required to unlock the wider code. He provided everything we needed. By the merest chance, Arrowhead would succeed."
"So what happened?"
There was no disguising the distaste in Becker's tone.
"Osman happened." he all but spat.
"A changing of the guard, mid-way through Arrowhead's development. Parangosky – so proud, so venerable and formidable, had finally reached the end of her line. Age catches us all in the end. She had ruled ONI with an iron first for over thirty years. Her apprentice wanted to make a name for herself."
There was no disguising the rancour in Becker's voice.
"Arrowhead was one of the first projects against the wall. Something of a personal bias on Osman's part. She hides it more often than not, but she too is a Spartan; subject to the same legacy of augmentation that began with my generation and passed down to yours. In a way I can understand her motivations. Each of us carry an ingrained sense of self-preservation. Nobody wants to brew their own poison."
"You were creating a genophage. A Spartan plague."
"I was creating a safeguard. Invisible, fast acting."
"You're talking genocide."
"I'm talking order, I'm talking our very continued existence as a species. Consider the Spartan program; its place within the greater socio-political hierarchy of today's society. How long before a rogue general decides his ideas are better than those of the nearest elected government, that the Spartans under his command are the ones to impose his will? And what if those same Spartans tire of following orders, and strike out on their own? What then?"
"The UNSC will step in."
"The UNSC?" Becker barked a laugh, "If you hold up the UNSC as some kind of moral compass, then simply look in the mirror. You have no idea of the ethical lines we crossed, that I crossed, to bring you into existence. Of the sacrifices and endless compromises that were made, so that humanity might live."
Becker faced entirely circled Rashid by this point. They stood face to face now.
"I am a loyal son of humanity. I have dedicated my life to its preservation and continued advancement. I will not allow it to fall further into the hands of power hungry politicians, misguided generals and would-be dictators; the butchers who would have us all kneel, and call it order. Humanity did not survive one tyrant only to be subjugated by its own creation."
"Nice speech. Have you been preparing it in the mirror?"
Becker scowled imperiously, ignoring the jibe.
"The universe needs an answer to the Spartan Question. I would see that question answered. You stand at a crossroads, Spartan Datar. The choice is simple. You can use your brilliant mind to aid me, and complete the work ONI started over twenty years ago."
"And the alternative?" Rashid asked.
A series of scientists wheeled in a trio of cryo-chambers. Two of them were occupied. The closest one was vacant. Its hatch yawned open as it slid toward him.
"There is none. You will complete your original mission, Rashid Datar. One way... or another."
Neither Spartan moved. All Damien could see was the barrel of Chase's battle rifle.
"Toss the knife." Chase barked.
Damien complied, hands raised.
"Easy now, Chase. I'm unarmed."
Chase said something in reply, but Damien was too speaking over the internal squad line. His eyes never left the barrel of Chase's rifle. At this range it seemed as wide as a tunnel.
"Chidi, listen up. Victory Square; Havenwood Medical. Rashid's last known position. Get there."
"What about you?" Chidinma asked.
"I'll catch up."
"Ten-four, One. Just one thing…"
Something about the tone in Chidi's voice set off alarm bells in Damien's mind. Oh no.
"Duck!" Chidinma bellowed.
Damien threw himself flat. The entire right hand side of the carriage blew inward; disintegrating in a storm of fire and metal and glass. Plastic seats were ripped to pieces, as glass fragments blew inward and display screens burst in fits of sparks and popping static.
Chase threw himself down too, but not before a half dozen rounds smashed into his flank, driving him against the wall, shields sparking; staining his pristine armour an ugly black.
It was the only opening Damien would get.
He took it.
Thrusters flaring, Chimera One flung himself bodily at the other Spartan; surging forward with an alarming burst of speed. There was no form or technique to it. The Spartans collided with a piercing metallic clap.
Then they were back on their feet, clashing like stags.
Chase drew a side-arm one-handed. Damien was much too quick. He clamped his hands around the weapon, forcing it upward. It discharged four times into the roof before the barrel strained and twisted under the pressure of his grip. Chase slammed his helmet into Damien's, just as the weapon came apart in his hands.
They separated. Damien arced a savage punch toward Chase's helmet. Chase, already halfway back on his feet, instinctively raised the battle rifle to catch the blow. The gun burst apart into its component pieces, scattering across the compartment. Chase countered immediately, smashing his helmet forward into Damien's chest plate, knocking him backward. A flurry of jabs followed, each glancing off warding forearms or whistling through open air as Damien gave ground.
Fighting is a complex, nuanced art. To the untrained eye, watching two practitioners of mixed martial arts can seem ungainly; a brawl lacking in fluidity or theatrics. This was something different. This was fighting on an ab-human scale; reinforced by years of constant training and hypnotherapy. Grappling was useless. Mjolnir would simply auto-lock in the event of a constricting force or unwelcome torque. Understanding this, the Spartans automatically launched into one another with the most effective means of destruction at their disposal: their hands and feet.
Strikes were exchanged rapid fire, blows and counter-jabs executed and traded with alarming precision. For Spartans, drilled extensively in some of the most ruthlessly pragmatic combat systems derived from centuries of human conflict, the complexity of technique becomes a breath-taking spectacle. Punches flowed into kicks, as quickly parried as they were thrown.
Each strike was calculated to be a killing blow. Sparks flew, in a very literal sense. There were metallic shrieks as Mjolnir plate scraped Mjolnir plate; attacking and counter attacking with ferocious speed.
Whatever the damage done by Chidinma's initial fuselade, the Spartan duel proved to be far more destructive. A back-hand from Chase sent Damien crashing clean through a row of seats, only for the Spartan to spring back swinging, one of his punches whistling over the white armoured Spartan's head and crumpling a stanchion with a metallic squeal.
A beaked fist caught Damien in the chest, knocking him backward. He backpedalled, deflecting a seemingly unending series of strikes. Chase's third jab overextended himself. Damien rewarded it by slapping his fist aside and leading in with his elbow. It crunched into Chase's VISR, sending a spider web of cracks lancing across the golden faceplate. Chase snarled and resumed his assault, driving Damien backward. Platinum One, true to his name, was the very embodiment of Spartan lethality; far fresher than his rogue counterpart. Chimera One fell backward, all but overwhelmed.
While the footage of the fight was captured by security cams embedded within the train car walls (and illegally disseminated throughout the Slush for years afterward), the off-centre focus of the footage did little to demonstrate just how quickly the Spartans moved. Every parried punch smashed dents into the walls of the carriage; as the train itself was torn apart in the course of the fight. At one point Damien tore a seat clean free from the wall and smashed it down over Chase's raised elbow. The chair broke in two. Chase's shields merely flickered. The fight continued, relentless.
Neither gained a significant advantage. Frustration won out in the end. Chase ducked his head and surged forward, barrelling into Damien with a savage tackle. They smashed through back into the rear cabin, taking the entire doorframe with them. Damien drove his knees upward, flicking a leg upward; sending Chase hurtling overhead.
When Chase rolled to his feet something flashed in the light.
Somewhere in the melee, he had retrieved Damien's discarded knife.
The two Spartans eyed each other for a moment; the air between them crackling as their shields hummed back to life. Chidinma's barrage had torn a sizeable rent clean through the train carriage behind Damien. The columns surrounding the train whipped by with savage whoops of sucking sound. The train was above the Argjend River now. Beneath them, brilliant silver water sparkled with crystalline purity.
"You wouldn't come quietly. Wouldn't make it easy, would you?" Chase panted.
"And deny myself the opportunity of kicking your arse?" Damien's breathing was every bit as ragged, "Where's the fun in that?"
Chase lunged with a snarl, slashing with the knife.
Damien caught his wrist. Chase expertly let the knife drop into his free hand, but Damien arced a savage elbow into his throat before he could strike. The white Spartan reeled back a step or two; another three as Damien followed up with a whistling combo of strikes – each evaded expertly.
There wasn't enough room to circle. Chase was the fresher of the two combatants, and it showed. For all the damage Chidinma's shots had done, he was the more composed. He crept forward, step by step, utterly confident. Damien retreated, mind-racing. Chase had been the top performing candidate of the Laconia Academy. His dedication to the Spartan Program was absolute, his discipline without peer. On a good day, Damien could hold his own. But this had been a long day, not a good one. Unconsciously, Chimera One retreated, until Damien's heel brushed against the ragged hole in the train car. He wobbled on his feet momentarily, catching his balance. He could feel the wind buffeting him. The support columns of the grav-line whooped past with savage speed. Chase chuckled darkly, the blade flashing as he passed it from hand to hand, effortlessly.
"No room left to run, 451. Last chance. Come quietly."
Chase stalked forward, continuing to juggle the knife.
"Central Station is coming up. There's going to be a hundred UNSC personnel waiting for you; all of them armed to the teeth. Even if you beat me, and you won't, you haven't a prayer. You don't even have a weapon."
The blue armoured Spartan dropped low into a defensive crouch. His eyes darted to and fro, taking in every detail. Chidinma's strafing run had left the other Spartan's armour cracked and pitted. Blood trickled down from one or two miniscule holes, glancing nicks where shrapnel had managed to bite in beneath the bodysuit. Spooling out from one of the torn floor sections behind Chase were a series of exposed wires; the sparking intestines of a butchered advertising display.
"Always outnumbered, never out-gunned." Damien growled, raising his hands in a defensive guard.
Starved of ammunition, the flyer felt noticeably lighter under Chidinma's weight as it tore through the sky toward Victory Plaza. She nimbly skipped over rooftops and dipped under suspension bridges between the 'scrapers; watching the waypoint marker Rashid had set rocket lower and lower. The plaza was the single widest stretch of open terrain in the entire city; a proud promenade of cultivated gardens and winding landscaped paths. An elegant fountain dominated the centre of the square, where an eternal flame was kept in silent vigil for those lost in The Great War.
No longer. Eric's discarded Condor lay beached in the centre of the fountain, having torn a runnel of torn muck and spattered fuel through the heart of the plaza. The Condor lay there, a smoking ruin coated in fire suppression jelly and scorch marks. The UNSC did the rest. A hundred trenches criss-crossed the open gardens; and through her VISR she could make out the bobbing heads of countless UNSC service personnel. All eyes were on the sky as she swooped down toward them. More pressing were the two Mantis Assault Walkers standing guard outside the grand parliament house, their weapon systems tracking to mark the new, miniscule target backlit against the burning sun; little more than a bat-winged shadow.
She was two klicks out when Eric's voice cut in over her com; voice rendered tinny by the weight of signal interference.
"Sierra 483, divert your course to my waypoint marker."
Her HUD blinked, switching from the pearlescent white and silvered glass of Havenwood Medical to the onyx baroque of Traxus Tower. Where one was elegant lines and graceful symmetry, the other was a far older structure; an ugly dagger slammed into the cityscape. It cast a long shadow over the expansive plaza, which was teeming with UNSC infantry. All eyes would be on her momentarily.
"Sir?" Chidinma asked. "Where are you?"
"-axus Tower, far side of the square."
"Can I ask why, Sir? Rashid's LKP was Havenwood Medical. One's instructions were clear."
"Old intel. Liquid situation. Rashid's been moved" Eric's voice was popped with static, "- advancing into the facility now. Find a way inside."
"Solid copy, enroute." Chidinma snapped the controls to one side, throwing the flier into a bank sharper than any normal pilot could endure and hope to endure conscious.
Just in time too. The air filled with a storm of hard lead; snapping and whistling at the air. A textbook infantry response to an aerial target: where deflection and accuracy of ground-to-ground ammunitions failed, weight of fire would succeed. Chidinma didn't make it easy for them. She threw the flier into a complex interlocking series of loops, increasing altitude as she kept one eye on the Tower, seeking an entrance.
Like every other building in Central, Traxus Tower was on lockdown. Heavy slabs of insulated polycrete had slid into place over the vast majority of the building, shielding its vulnerable windows. Traxus Heavy Industries had installed the tower over a hundred years before, where it served as the city's first and only auto-manufactory. Long since decommissioned, it had been sold to private interests, where it remained a dark blight on an otherwise glittering cityscape. Only its historical significance to the colony had safeguarded it from the frustrated cries of architects across the planet.
Chidinma zoomed in her VISR. The building's age betrayed it. While the armoured orbital defence plates were comparatively new, they were a modern solution for an ancient building. Here, the plates had been bolted to the front of the building; ram-shackle and inelegant. There were gaps in the armour; the most noticeable of which was the small horizontal slip of glass lining the snarling grilled lobby of the main entrance lobby. It was a small target; scarcely larger than the flyer itself.
Chidinma grinned, amped for a challenge.
She dove straight for it; a shrieking scream-dive that pressed her back in her saddle, her body bent low to the hull. The torn muck of the Plaza raced up at her, as troopers threw themselves left and right, expecting a suicidal impact. At the last moment she cut the primary engines and engaged the vertical grav-drives, slewing the vehicle into a bouncing climb that brought her level with the ground beneath her. The storm of incoming fire renewed with increased determination. Twice bullets spanked off the flyer's fuselage; one shot even pinked off her thigh armour, eliciting a cursory hiss from her shield system. The Mantis gunners refrained from opening up, too concerned with hitting friendly targets. She ignored them at full thrust; racing over the helmets of panicking marines. Her grav drives threw up a plume of dust and torn grass as she screamed across the plaza. Her eyes never left the small strip of glass ahead. The grin never left her face.
The building shrieked toward her, too fast to take in. A thousand metres melted into a dozen in seconds.
At the last second Chidinma braced in her saddle. Every muscle flexed, tighter than coiled steel.
The world exploded in glass and fire.
Chase made the first move; a feinting jab flowing into an arcing slash. Damien knew it was coming; had been on the receiving end of such an attack a thousand times before. He deflected the blade off his bracer, slamming into Chase with a flare of his thruster pack. It was graceless, brutish, but against a peerless fighter like Chase, sometimes the most inelegant tactics worked. To Fireteam Platinum, Chimera were dog soldiers; inferior in every respect; brawlers who had to make up for comparative lack of career experience with scrappy improvisation.
Scrappy suited Damien just fine.
Chase lashed back at Damien, the blade arcing for his neck. There was scant distance between the two Spartans now. Damien ducked his helmet forward and butted the sharp edge of the blade aside; a knee-jerk reaction that left him reeling from the hammer blow. Chase shoved Damien to one side, planting a mule kick in the centre of the blue Spartan's chest. Damien collapsed backward, went to roll to his feet. A follow up kick drove him over onto his belly. A second forced the wind from him.
Chase was toying with him now. The Spartans had swapped places on the train. Now Chase's back was to the gaping hole in the train.
"I always wondered why they picked you for the Cadiz op. We were highest in the standings. We had earned First Selection. Look at you now." Damien was stubbornly pushing himself off the floor, "On your knees. Broken!"
Chase slammed his heel down on Damien's back, driving the fallen Spartan flat down on the ground. Damien's shield system bleated in his ears; alarmed at the sheer punishment Platinum One was inflicting.
"Command will realise their mistake today. We would have gone into that damned city, as was our right." Chase beckoned to the city around them. "This entire disaster could have been avoided."
Chase froze, puzzled. Chimera One was laughing.
"What? What is it?" Chase asked sharply.
Damien rolled onto his back, doubled over. He was howling now, tears rolling down his face; pain and amusement combined. He had to suck lungful's of air just to breath.
"Stop it, you idiot!" Chase demanded, "What are you gibbering about?!"
"You might be the best, Chase." Damien depolarised his visor, looking the triumphant Spartan dead in the eye. "But can you swim?"
Chase looked down.
Wrapped around his leg was a discarded electrical cable.
Damien twisted his fingers inside the wiring, before plugging it into Chase's leg. It was a parlour trick, one Rashid had taught him in their last ill-fated escape attempt in Laconia. UNSC wiring is distressingly uniform, Rash had said at the time. Those words proved alarmingly prophetic.
A million volts of electricity surged through Chase's armour. The Mjolnir system would have weathered it comfortably. The bodysuit, robust in the extreme, served as an excellent insulator. But the shrapnel biting through his leg, tiny and inconsequential though they were, was the gap Damien needed. It channelled the power of the train, which combined with the shielding of Platinum One's own armour. Chase shrieked. It was an animal shriek, barely human. He would have been killed outright had the architecture of his suit not ablated the full brunt of the surge. Bolt upright, arms spread and fingers splayed in rictus agony, he rocked on the spot as the electricity arced through him.
Damien put him out of his misery. With a flare of his thrusters, he flew upwards. A neat uppercut sent Chase clean out the side of the train, falling toward the water below.
Damien never saw where Platinum One's body impact. He didn't care.
With a weary groan he reached down and retrieved his boot knife.
"And as a matter of fact, Chase." Damien panted aloud, "I do have a weapon."
Chidinma groaned and rolled onto her back. The entire right hand side of her body plate had been entirely shorn of colour, rendered little more than tortured scrapes. A dozen impact warnings bleeped at her across the bottom of her HUD. She ignored them, forcing her lungs to suck in air; head spinning from the adrenal high. Her weapon was gone; the flyer a flaming ruin on the far side of the expansive lobby. Her weapons were gone, shredded on impact.
She sat up, thoroughly spooked.
The entire lobby was dark; a cyclopean cave. No guards, no lighting of any kind. The gloom was entirely unnerving. Her VISR automatically began to pick out details, adjusting for the minimal lighting. A series of giant support pillars lined each side of the lobby. The floor was a polished vastness. A Traxus sigil was inscribed in the floor.
Two spot lights snapped into life, high in the darkness.
Chidinma rose to her feet, bathed in the piercing light.
She stared up into it defiantly.
The entire floor shook as a machined striding leg fully twice her height stomped forward out of the black. Jet black, dressed in reinforced armour plating. Chidinma blinked. It was too tall for a standard Mantis Assault Walker, by fully a third. A custom job, some obscure ONI designation whose full capabilities she could only guess at.
A PA system keened to life; a thick Scottish accent, low and menacing.
"Welcome to ONI Testing Facility 000-000-343. A black-site, home to some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the entire UNSC. Entirely under Black Shard control."
It stalked forward like some menacing flightless bird; bedecked in state of art weaponry. A low chuckle emanated from the PA.
"I am Aengus McBride, and I will be serving as your instructor today."
Weapon pods unfurled with a descending whirr. Rotary emplacements, micro-missile launchers and point defence lasers. More weapon systems than she could rightly count. They hummed as they powered to life.
"Your final test begins… now."