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 personnel had them in their 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:


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 fucking 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 circumstances 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."


"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."


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.


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 thought 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.