*****AOMNH: Wouldn't be a Spartan Mission if it Was Easy*****
AN: I'MMMM BAAAACK! Well, I mean for those of you reading my other stories I never left, but I kinda left this one alone for a while. Anyway, I can say more after the reviews. Before that however, let me say something that I apparently should've at the start, and I'll only say this once as I doubt the reverse will ever be true: I own neither Halo, Mass Effect, or any of the characters therein (aside from characters of my own making, naturally.) Those are the properties of their respective companies, and I don't earn anything from writing this aside from personal satisfaction. There. I said it. Now let's go back to never worrying about it again…
Blaze1992: Heh. Fair enough. Karma is, as the not-so-old saying goes, a bitch.
Tom712: You know, I'd have a witty response waiting for you, but there's a chance you forgot what your review was after all this time. I mean with how detailed it was, anyone could be forgiven for that… *smiles innocently*
Prometheus-777: Yeah, covered this in a PM a while ago now. Hope you remember the details, because I'm afraid I don't.
taintedahab: Heh. Cognitive hazard indeed.
Mangoose: …I have so many questions about how you picked your name. Err, anyway, the actual review. Yeah, call them many things, but Reapers are at least smart enough to know when the subtle approach is better than brute force.
TheRightPrice: Why thank you! Oh and sorry about the unofficial hiatus; buuuuut! I am still continuing this, as you can see.
firesale988: …well, if I didn't feel bad about leaving this be and focusing on my other stories before, then I do now. Sorry. And don't worry; if I do actually abandon this (as in stop writing it altogether) I'll at least do the courtesy of telling my readers as such.
Well, that's that. Now then, a bit of news before the long awaited chapter: First, let me say that I am incredibly sorry for the wait. At first I left this be so I could gather my thoughts on where it'd go, but then I decided to wait on writing this again until I at least bought and played through the Master Chief Collection – and I have by now, I might add – which took me a good two months to do (money sadly does not grow on trees, and I also had other recently gotten games competing for that time) only to then get occupied doing a number of smaller writing projects with a few friends of mine. In fact I still am doing those projects, but I'm forcing myself to at least try and start writing this again, even if the chapters have a good chance of being only 4k words or less.
Regardless, no excuse makes up for six months of waiting. So without further ado, I give you the Master-Freaking-Chief, Sierra 117, Caveman John himself, making his grand debut in this story as a sort of present after the big reveal of Infinity.
…bet you didn't see that coming, did ya?
"…and up here. Good. Now the indicator over here. Alright, checks out; you're good to go, Chief," the technician said, finally finishing the little test the Master Chief always had to take upon waking from cryosleep. "Captain wants you on the bridge as soon as you've geared up. Armory's right down the hall, just follow the signs," the technician told him while thumbing towards the exit door, and after flexing his fingers one final time, John nodded in answer and strode out.
As he made his way to the armory, following the signs just as the tech said, he picked up on a number of conversations from the Marines and Navy personnel running to-and-fro down the Autumn's military grey hallways; the soldiers so busy that for once they almost didn't notice the Spartan walking through their midst. If he was being honest, listening in on conversations like this was automatic for him; just one of countless skills taught to every Spartan during their training. And scuttlebutt, while very often unreliable, was still another way of acquiring important information.
"-id you hear? The Covie bastards are shooting each other now! No, really, I saw it with my own eyes-"
"-all I know is that we arrived in a system with some sort of massive ring. I'd bet two of my chocolate rations that it's Forerunner-"
"-I'm telling you, he was on the bridge when it happened! An Elite admiral actually talked to Captain Keyes, and get this: they have an alien with them that they think is a god!"
John paused at that last one and tried catching the rest of it, before noting the two discussing it had gone into another hallway, and so he continued on towards his original destination with a mental note to look into it further if the opportunity presented itself.
Arriving at the armory, the Sergeant inside overseeing the numerous weapons just sent him a glance before stiffening, followed by sighing and gesturing to the selection of guns and ammo on the racks. "Take your pick, Spartan," was all the man said before walking towards a squad of Marines in the process of gearing up, seemingly trying to ignore Chief's presence.
John, used to such a reaction from the more… average soldiers (among many other reactions, for that matter) simply walked up to the racks and looked the various guns, missile launchers, and grenades over with a clinical eye. Making his decision, he picked up his weapons of choice and attached them to the appropriate mag-plates: the MA5C ICWS, known by Marines and ODSTs as the assault rifle; and the M6D Pistol, otherwise known as the Magnum. He chose the latter primarily as a back-up weapon, or for the moments when a target was too far away for the assault rifle to be effective and precision was necessary; and while he could've picked a sniper rifle for that role, it wouldn't have been as versatile as the Magnum.
After filling up on ammo for both weapons, as well as grabbing four frag grenades, Chief made his way to the bridge; and as he got closer, the bustle of activity lessened enough to where people started taking note of him again. It worked in his favor though, as those in front of him cleared a path and kept from obstructing him, and as such he arrived at the bridge less than a minute later.
Spotting Captain Keyes discussing something with the AI he'd met prior to being put on ice – Cortana was her name, he remembered – in a low enough tone for even his enhanced hearing to not pick up, he waited until they noticed him and, after they did, walked up to the Captain and stood at attention. "Master Chief Petty Officer Sierra 117 reporting as ordered, sir." he said while saluting.
Keyes returned the salute and nodded at him. "At ease, Chief. I believe you and Cortana here have already met?"
"Yes sir, we are acquainted," was his curt response; he wasn't being rude, far from it, he simply believed that any further explanation was unnecessary given the question.
"Good. That should make this easier, then."
Keyes turned his head to Cortana's avatar with a questioning look, and only after receiving a nod from the AI did he turn back to Chief. "According to the Cole Protocol, AIs cannot be allowed to fall into Covenant hands. Now, while the Autumn is a fine vessel, she's just one ship. And no matter what these… friendly Covies we've come in contact with may say, they still outnumber us by an entire armada. So I reached a decision, at the suggestion of Cortana herself: Chief, you have a record of surviving missions that have wiped out whole human fleets, and the number of times you've gone behind enemy lines and come back in one piece is unmatched by anyone else in the UNSC. As such, she will be in your care for the duration of this mission. And after the information revealed to us by the… Converted, as they're apparently calling themselves, and their leader, it'd be for the best, especially considering what we found here."
John's mind went into overtime trying to piece together everything that he was just told, but he found himself unable to do so, to his growing frustration. "Sir, I'm afraid I don't have enough information about recent events, and need to be given further details if I am to accomplish my mission."
Captain Keyes blinked and then nodded, as if coming to a realization. "My apologies, Spartan; I forgot you were just woken up. Cortana can tell you everything you need to know so that you'll be caught up; the supposed leader of the Converted was far more talkative with her than he was with me." He then looked back at Cortana. "You done everything you can?" he asked.
Cortana, or more accurately, her avatar, turned and 'looked around' at the bridge, before closing her 'eyes,' opening them a second later and nodding in the affirmative. "Yank me," was her only response.
Keyes gave her a slight nod before reaching towards a slot in the pedestal and pulling out an AI data chip, the center a bright and vibrant blue. The Captain then held the chip out to John, staring straight at his visor. "Take good care of her, Chief," he said, and John took the chip and nodded minutely, before inserting it into his helmet and trying not to stiffen up.
He'd never gotten used to the shiver that ran through his body when linking with an AI.
"Will do, sir."
After being dismissed from the bridge and told to await further orders, John decided to finally have a talk with Cortana about the topics discussed. "Cortana, can you give me all the details about the situation the Autumn is in?"
"Don't appreciate being left in the dark I take it?" she asked in turn, using his internal speakers for much the same reason his helmet mic was currently turned off.
"No," was his blunt response.
"Alright, I can do that. Though fair warning: you might be a little… surprised by some of what you see."
"Show me," is all he said, and she did so.
He watched a recording from one of the Autumn's external cameras as Cortana narrated about the calculations she'd made prior to the jump; it started off showing the universally alien blue and white scenery that was slipspace, before opening up to the black void interspaced with countless stars that was real space. The first thing John noticed after that was a truly massive ring shaped artificial construct that sat there in the distance. The second thing was an ongoing space battle between two fleets taking place near the ring.
The UNSC already had assets here? Strange, Cortana said these coordinates were previously uncharted-wait.
On second glance he noted an oddity regarding the space battle, numerous ones in fact, and quickly had the recording zoom in on the area of space it was taking place in. Sure enough, he wasn't imagining it.
"Cortana?" he found himself asking, completely stumped as to why the Covenant would be fighting amongst themselves like this; and as he took further note of, neither side sent even so much as a squadron of Seraphs at the Autumn, no doubt due mostly to the fact that they were so focused on killing each other.
"Keep watching, I'll explain when we get to the right part."
He thought for a moment to question the AI further, but quickly settled on following her advice. He reasoned she knew what was coming, and that this was intended as additional background information to aid in clarifying whatever it was.
The battle played out for a few more seconds before John watched the scenes fast forwarding to certain parts: a pair of battlecruisers destroyed; an assault carrier leading the charge against the smaller faction's fleet after having dealt the finishing blows to those two cruisers; a third battlecruiser moving in front of another, strange looking ship to protect it from a volley of plasma – and that was when he noticed it. The larger fleet wasn't in an aggressive formation, they were in a defensive one. And if that realization didn't raise enough questions, it took him less than a second to make the connection between the footage he'd just seen and the potential reason behind the Covenant's apparent internal conflict.
"Cortana, could you reverse and hold at 38.5?"
"I was waiting for you to catch that," she said, smirk audible in her voice, not that he cared overly much at the moment.
He didn't respond, and seeing as this became apparent a second later, Cortana followed his request silently. The image displayed was of the battlecruiser repositioning to take the brunt of a plasma barrage, but when he focused passed it, he made out further details on the strange ship he saw from before; its armor plating looked to be a strange shade of purple that definitely wasn't Covenant in origin, with the areas not covered in armor a shade of black. A more relevant detail he noted though was how only half of the ship had running lights on, with numerous areas seemingly dead in regards to power… which was when he saw the impact holes punched through the armor plating.
"Is it Covenant?" he felt compelled to make sure; his instincts telling him the thing was anything but. He'd long learned to trust his instincts.
"No. Not in the least. The few scans we've been able to get from it have given remarkable results, telling us that it differs from all known technologies humanity has come in contact with, be it Covenant or even Forerunner. But that's far from the most surprising part. The ship itself is an AI…" she trailed off, and he couldn't quite identify the emotion in her voice.
"An AI? How? Judging by the impact scarring, it must be upwards of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years old. No AI can survive that long without going rampant," he said matter-of-factly, the information being common knowledge.
"No human AI can live that long," Cortana corrected him, "and it actually gave me its age, and even its name. Well, I suppose I should call the AI a he, considering it identified itself with gender pronouns…"
"How old is it then?" John asked.
"As far as he was aware when I communicated with him? Hundreds of millions, potentially billions of years. He was even kind enough to send the most recent readings from his vessel's equivalent to a chronometer, as well as results of a few of the age related tests performed by the Covenant that found him; and they still couldn't pinpoint an exact age. Though apparently he was deactivated, or 'sleeping' as he called it, for the majority of this time period. Still… an AI that could be as old or older than the Earth itself…"
John couldn't help but just stand there in mild shock, mind whirling with the implications brought on by the seemingly impossible number attached to the AI's age; but in the end he was still a soldier, so he forced his thoughts down and focused on the important information. No normal person would've caught his lapse in control; however, Cortana was far from a normal person. Regardless, she had the good grace not to mention it.
"So there's no possibility of the AI being Forerunner?"
"None," she responded immediately, and he wondered if she had predicted he would ask that. "I have numerous files on the Forerunners stored in me, as well as nearly everything humanity's ever discovered about them, and I can say with 100% certainty that this AI was not made by them."
John spent a solid eight seconds thinking it over before determining it wouldn't be an issue for whatever mission he'd be given. "Continue the recording," he told Cortana once his mind was again clear of any distractions, and she did so.
The recording picked up where they'd left off, and after 30 seconds of watching he saw how the smaller Covenant faction of the two had been swiftly reduced in number, to the point they were incapable of offering the larger faction a true fight. Just as expected, the losing side soon vanished into slipspace; and as the Autumn wasn't currently dealing with Covie borders, John could say with relative certainty that the remaining fleet hadn't decided to attack them. It seemed that Cortana had concluded he'd have figured this out, as the next scene was of a conversation between Captain Keyes and a high ranking (judging by his armor, at least) elite officer by name of Thavu 'Zonomee.
John paid careful attention to what they discussed, making sure to remember several important pieces of previously unknown information; and when it was all said and done the elite ended the call and told Keyes to wait as he opened a connection to this "god" of theirs.
He didn't have to wait long, and a short moment later the call screen turned black before revealing… John wasn't even sure what it was. At first glance it looked like an elite, mandibles and all, but that image was completely offset by the sheer wrongness of its body proportions; never mind the numerous glowing blue wires dangling from the back of its head like a twisted facsimile of hair. Both the arms and legs were longer than an elite's were by several inches, adding further to the already imposing height and reach held by the species, and both sets of limbs had extensive cybernetics covering them; in fact, the AI's entire body was practically built out of cybernetics from head to foot, to the point John was starting to think that was indeed the case. All this was of course ignoring the fact that the body was suspended in the air without anything visibly keeping it there; but considering Covenant gravity tech, John wasn't all that surprised about this particular detail.
"Ah, humans!" the alien AI said almost excitedly, voice deep and choral in nature, as if far more than one person was speaking from it. "I have anticipated speaking to one of your kind for a number of… days, I understand you call them? So inconvenient how many different terms you organics use to describe the passage of time."
"The Fleetmaster said you wanted to speak with us?" the unusually neutral and even voice of Cortana interrupted, making the alien turn his attention towards her avatar.
"Well hello there! The human-made intelligence I was looking for! I knew I detected one in the systems of your vessel; sadly, nothing in my new fleet quite matches your digital presence, besides myself of course. May I know your name? You are the first intelligence I've come across since I awoke. I will of course exchange yours for mine if you so wish."
The Cortana in the footage looked over at Captain Keyes questioningly, and giving his permission, he nodded.
"My designation is UNSC smart AI CTN 0452-9. My name, however, is Cortana."
The alien AI did something with its mandibles that John thought might've been something like a smile; but given its physical differences from even a normal elite, he had no way of knowing for sure. "Thank you for introducing yourself, Cortana. My individual designation is True Intelligence leadership program, Conductor to 357-Last of the First. Our name, however, is Trescari."
"'Our?'" Keyes was quick to ask.
"Yes. I am but the man, the Conductor, leading the whole, and that whole is Trescari." When neither Cortana or Keyes said anything, the AI tilted its head in an unrecognized gesture. "I apologize if this confuses you, but it is the simplest way of explaining my being. Now then, I believe that means introductions are out of the way; Thavu was very helpful in explaining that aspect of organic interaction once he awoke from the implant procedure."
John immediately correlated that info with what he'd learned in an earlier part of the footage regarding the elite officer's change in eye color, but had to file it away for later investigation as the AI continued. "I understand you humans and the Covenant have been engaged in a war for the past 27 of your years, resulting in an estimated 20 billion human deaths and 649 to 972 million Covenant ones according to the latter's records. The variable is so high simply because the Covenant tends not to count unggoy deaths in casualty lists."
At actually hearing the numbers lost on the Covenant's side when compared to the staggering number of human deaths, John couldn't properly describe what he felt. Cold anger was one of the things though, but he'd long ago been taught how to temper it and use it towards something productive. Regardless, the AI continued.
"This blatant waste of life goes against both my core programming and very reason for existence," it said, and John could detect a hint of what sounded like genuine disgust in its strange voice. It paused then, before continuing in a tone of voice somehow darker and older than its previous one, the echoing pitch sounding as if it was speaking from inside the depths of an ancient cave, "I aim to rectify this error."
John paused it and was about to question Cortana regarding whether that meant what he thought it meant; but before he could, his comms lit up with an incoming communication. Sighing minutely at the interruption, he accepted the priority call. "This is Sierra 117."
"Master Chief, Captain Keyes wants you to report to the bridge for assignment."
So soon? Were his thoughts, but he nonetheless responded, "Affirmative," before making his way back to the bridge.
When he got there he stopped in his tracks and tensed at seeing an elite in black armor talking to Keyes on the holoscreen. SpecOps, the tactical side of his mind helpfully told him. Reminding himself of the Autumn's current situation, however, snapped him out of his battle readiness – it was unnecessary in the first place seeing as the elite was only on the screen and not actually in the room with them, but old habits die hard when they've been refined for nearly three decades.
"Sir, reporting as ordered," John told Keyes after walking up to him, the Captain turning his head slightly and nodding.
"Chief. The 'Conductor' got in contact with us soon after you and Cortana left the bridge. Apparently, while the majority of that second Covie fleet was wiped out or retreated, a single damaged ship slipped through and landed both itself and a couple thousand troops on the Halo." John tilted his head slightly in confusion at the term, and it was enough for Keyes to notice. "That's what the Forerunner ring station is called according to the Covenant and Converted. While they haven't been as forthcoming as I'd like," he said this while eyeing the SpecOps on the screen suspiciously, while said alien didn't react at all to his words, "they've revealed enough for me to conclude that whatever the Halo is, we can't allow the Covenant access to it."
Keyes stopped a moment to let the information sink in. "Fortunately, in that respect both myself and the Conductor agree; and he extended an olive branch to us as a peace offering of sorts. Converted forces will engage the entrenched Covies on the front line, rather than bombing their positions from orbit because they don't want to risk damaging Halo, but they'll be able to handle it; the part where you come in is when a SpecOps team will be deployed to track down and eliminate the Covenant leadership, as according to intercepted transmissions they've gone deep into Halo, looking for a map room of the station they call 'The Silent Cartographer.' You will be going with this team alongside two squads of Marines to investigate, so make sure to keep as many of our boys alive as you can." John didn't fail to notice how that order didn't cover the SpecOps team, and judging by the way the elite tilted his head, neither did the alien. "Heavy resistance is expected at the site, so be prepared for anything."
"Yes sir. I take it he's the leader of the SpecOps team?" Chief asked while nodding towards the elite onscreen.
"That he is, Spartan. Never did get your name…" Keyes trailed off while looking at the alien in question.
"Jykan, Shipmaster Keyes," was the elite's cool answer, before he turned his helmet to look straight at Chief. "And you are obviously the demon – or rather, Spartan, that will accompany my team on our mission. I anticipate seeing your abilities first-hand. Not many in the Covenant have crossed one of your kind… that is, crossed and survived to tell the tale. There are few among my people that haven't learned to respect your strength and be wary when we are told of demons on the battlefield. May I have the honor of learning your name, warrior?"
John looked to Captain Keyes for orders. The latter man frowned but nodded tersely, and so Chief answered. "Master Chief Petty Officer Sierra 117."
"A rank and number is your name?" the elite, Jykan, questioned; but seeing that Chief didn't continue, he seemed to shrug it off. "No matter. I have already discussed the details with your shipmaster; one of your Pelican transports will deliver you and your accompanying soldiers to a waiting stealth equipped Phantom so we may slip behind enemy lines undetected. With luck, the majority of the defenders will be occupied fending off our main assault, and we may cut down the leadership before ever being noticed. It should make clearing their remaining forces all the easier."
"Well, there you have it Chief. Any further questions?" Keyes asked once it was clear Jykan had nothing else to say.
John, meanwhile, never took his eyes off the elite throughout their conversation; and somehow, in spite of them both wearing full helmets that hid their features, he was sure Jykan noticed his stare and was doing the same to him. "Only one sir: When do we leave?"
And there you go! We're back in the saddle, boys and girls, and things are about to get interesting. Of course, I mean "interesting" in the same way as an ancient Chinese curse I'm particularly fond of ("may you live in interesting times") but that's neither here nor there. Next chapter is planned to have less exposition and more action, as should be expected of anything Halo, but we shall see once it's written I suppose.
Oh and regarding an issue I'm having. See, I'm a little conflicted, so I'll leave the decision to you, the reader: Do you want more "alien" scenes like the last three chapters; or would you prefer this remained a mostly, or even entirely, human/Spartan/Master Chief centric narrative? As I said, I'm conflicted on this, as either option has its merits; but would have completely different tones and personalities from each other, even if covering the same scene. Be sure to let me know; I'd greatly appreciate it.
Well, that's everything for now. No promises on when the next chapter for this will come out, but if anything I guarantee you won't have to wait until Christmas for it. I hope you enjoyed it and I'll see you next time!