A/N: I'm nor sure I like this chapter. It feels... awkward, somehow, but then, there's really no way around this. This is one of those 'transitional' chapters that makes a move from the second act into the third. Melnivone brought some rather critical errors to my attention, so those have been corrected in this chapter.

I couldn't help but notice that this fic has had over 5,000 hits in the last two months, over a thousand of those being fresh visitors. I can't thank you all enough for just generally being awesome. You rock, people.

Also, if you're ever wondering where I'm at with the writing of this, or want to just check out what's on my mind (I won't ask why such a delusion might come upon you) go to my profile. I'm always adding new posts, screeds, and whatnot there when I get the itch. It's kind of like "Kavek: Uncensored." Which is a pretty ugly picture, heh.

And, as always, please do review. I have a long way to go in my quest to write on a level I'm satisfied with, so any advice is welcome. And now, on with the story.

A sidenote: does anyone ever bother translating the chapter titles? ;-)

Chapter 15: Nous Avons Tous Couler le Sang Pour Survivre

Special Agent Jack Bauer couldn't convince himself when he slept. Which had been twice since he had arrived on the surface of the Ark. Each time, he instead woke up frustrated, fearful, disquieted – of his mission, of his standards, of his tactics. Two standard days of operations on the ground, for business that should have been cleared up in twelve hours at the most, and all he was doing was throwing resources at a moving target that evaded him and confounded his scouts.

You've been out of the game too long, Bauer, he thought as he moved toward the mobile command center. You're being left behind. Most of the personnel on the Prowler had been brought to the surface, with more ordnance and equipment on the way. Jack had checked the manifests; HIGHCOM obviously thought rather highly of the Master Chief – and, consequently, rather little of Agent Bauer – if they were sending such rarities as Vultures, aerial combat craft that hadn't seen much battle since the fall of Reach. There was enough material to wage a small-scale invasion.

The cold ultimatum from George Mason peered out from the darkness in the corners of his mind: "I'm only as much of an asshole as I need to be when it comes to getting things done, Jack. And I know you. I wouldn't put anything past you. So. When it comes to what you're going to find back home if you try to skip out on this... well. Don't put anything past me."


He shoved the dark thoughts aside as he brushed past the door guard at MCOM. Within, two armor-clad Marine officers were consulting the results of an upper-atmosphere topography scan.

"Holmes," Bauer barked. "What have we got in terms of a track pattern?"

Sergeant Holmes straightened slowly with a half-hearted salute, looking tired. "We got nothing, sir. He smashed the transponder in that VTOL and by our records, he had enough fuel to go thirty miles before he needed to stop. He could be just about anywhere."

"Show me," Agent Bauer asked calmly.

Holmes tapped a button on the holopad, and from a red glowing point near a patchwork of tree-covered hills, a series of lines parallel to the topography began to spread out like the branches of a tree.

"By analyzing the terrain, sir, we were able to determine his most likely points of egress, but only by relation to camera records. Alpha niner-seven was the one who caught him on instruments, but we can't pull the records, 'cause guess who's got them!"

Jack scowled. "Chasing the Chief is useless. But he's rendezvoused with his partners every time we've split them up; they were on foot. Did we do an analysis of their potential patterns?"

Holmes looked across the pad at his weedy superior, Captain Dell Tackett. Tackett cleared his throat. "We've... ah, considered that, sir. I wasn't certain of whether or not you wanted to use resources for that kind of an... ah, effort."

Jack turned towards him, arms akimbo. The fear in the man's voice wasn't evident, but it was certainly there, lurking behind his wide eyes. Bauer stopped, sighed. Politics. "Look, gentlemen, let me make something abundantly clear to you: this mission was given to me under duress. I was not given a choice in the matter. So don't get the idea that I am glory-hounding my way through this operation. I am taking it very seriously, and I am not out to hunt heads."

Tackett and Holmes just looked at each other.

Jack took a step forward and leaned on the holopad, letting the lip of the table scrape against his armor. He'd slept in it now, and at least that was beginning to feel more comfortable. "Get it in your heads that we are dealing with a man who knows how we work inside and out. He will not do the expected thing, he will not make this easy, or convenient. So I need you to be thinking on your feet and as outside of the box as you can get. We have all the resources we need here, and I'm not going to go busting heads because an idea didn't work. That's not important. What is important is catching that Spartan and retrieving his AI."

Holmes cleared his throat, a subtly pleased look in his eye. "I'll get right on that track pattern, sir."

Jack nodded towards Holmes retreating back. Then, to Tackett: "From what I understand, we're dealing with an elite and a brute, plus one Marine. They're going to be far easier to hunt down than the Chief is, especially when they're separated from him. So make them your priority. Get our scout-sniper squads out there, looking at the terrain, tracking them down. No more VTOLs on search-and-destroy. Keep them on upper-air reconnaissance. And let's get MCOM packed up. We need to get on the road."

Sergeant Don Kramer was out of his depth. Way out of his depth. He kept on a stern face, played with his VPS, consulted Mendicant Bias when he couldn't keep his bearings, but he was not in control. To him, the question at this point was not, "How do I get to the Animus?" Briggs' constant nagging had turned it into "Should I go to the Animus?"

He didn't sleep much, anymore. Tossed and turned and lay awake for two days now. He'd aimlessly march, walk in the general direction he knew they were supposed to be going, get corrected by Mendicant Bias, and listen to the endless empty chatter of Briggs, whispering in his ear, telling him he was wrong. He could hear him now: "This isn't protocol, Sergeant. This isn't right. Atlas Station. Remember Atlas Station?"

How could he know about Atlas? Kramer distantly wondered, and suddenly, the anger rose up and he turned: "If I told you once, I told you a thousand times, Private Br..." - he stopped short. Briggs was almost ten feet to the left, right where Kramer had told him to be, fanned out and watching their surroundings. "Sir?" he asked, eyes narrowed.

Damn, Kramer thought. Voices in your goddamn head. What the hell? "Never mind," he snapped, and moved on, eyes heading back to Mendicant Bias' bobbing green light. "Hey!" he yelled. "Don't get too far ahead!"

Bias slowed, turned. "I do beg your pardon," it replied evenly, and waited until the troop of Marines drew closer.

"How much further do we have?" Kramer asked, coming to a halt. He consulted the holoscanned map that Mendicant had uploaded for him. "I still haven't figured out how to interpret these measurements."

Corporal Hook and Dari hauled up behind him as Briggs pulled in from the side. "Maybe Dari could help?" Hook offered. The grunt's eyes widened – probably in fear.

"No need," Mendicant interjected. "We have yet four days at this pace before we arrive. And then, we must wait for the Reclaimer."

Briggs muttered something under his breath, but Kramer chose to ignore it this time.

Atlas Station. Kramer supposed everyone had a big, dark secret – and Atlas Station was his. He figured it was bound to resurface some time, especially after all the dark nights he'd spent drowning it in alcohol and stims and women back planet-side.

Drowning it, or drowning himself?

Regardless, it was back again, his one huge failure, the shatterpoint he hid within himself. Maybe that was why he secretly despised Briggs; he saw so much of himself in the cock-sure, drunken, malevolent mess of a man that he was trusting to guard his left flank. He forced back a shudder along with the cold memory that crawled over his spine.

"What do you mean, wait for the Reclaimer?" Briggs snorted, obviously intending the comment for Kramer. "Do we wait even longer now? What happens if he doesn't show up?"

Mendicant Bias made the electronic equivalent of a huff. "It is certainly possible to re-imprint the Animus for a... lesser strain, but it is a lengthy process which would certainly add to the stress on this station. By my projections, the Flood will be at the place we now stand in two days' time; we must hurry to arrive at the fortification ahead of them." The AI's disdain was evident.

Briggs turned slowly, sardonically, to Kramer. "Uh, Sarge, are you seeing the problem I'm seeing?"

Mendicant Bias huffed again. "I beg your pardon...?"

Kramer looked from Briggs to Bias to Corporal Hook and back again. "Enlighten me, Private."

"How in the hell do we plan on getting off of this thing?" Briggs snarled. Kramer noticed the lack of the honorific "sir."

Hook spoke up, pulling off her helmet as she did so. "The installation we're being led to has a deep-space antenna that will allow us to get a message to the Colonies so that someone can pick us up," she answered smoothly, calmly. Trying to defuse the situation.

Briggs grinned wickedly. "A lot of good that'll do us! Who in the Colonies is going to pick us up after we directly defy order from HIGHCOM? What makes you think that even if we get this message off and we fire this Animus thing that we still won't get caught by Bauer and his goons and get pushed out an airlock for high treason?"

Hook stepped up and poked Briggs in the chest. "HIGHCOM's order is obviously contrary to all Artificial Intelligence protocol. This one reeks of ONI, and you know it, Private. Now shut your mouth, and that's a standing order!"

Briggs leaned in, malice in his voice. "I don't answer to Navy sluts," he growled slowly.

Corporal Hook's eyes became murderous, but before she could speak, Kramer raised a hand. "Quiet, both of you! Corporal..."

Kramer paused. He felt like he was walking the edge of a knife, balancing between one side and the other. If he did not choose whose side he was on, he would fall and be cut in two. The image of Atlas Station breaking up in the vacuum of space swelled in his mind's eye again.

"Corporal," he began again, and sighed. "Briggs is right. Cortana's gone crazy."

Then, tightly, "And it's just a computer."

Cortana perked up.

"It's just a computer."

Cold rage.

She suddenly swelled with anger inside the corporal's neural lace, twisted upon herself, wrathful. How dare he. How dare he.

She became a flurry of activity, rearranging files, finding circuit pathways, wiring herself into TEAMCOM, so that she could hear the conversation more clearly, and more importantly, enter it herself. She reversed the audio files, played their data in less than a second, then, struggling to control Rage:

"The word is AI, asshole."

Kramer nearly started out of his skin at the voice, silent for three days, suddenly loud and clear in his headset. And angry.

"I'm so glad that you know so much about insanity, Sergeant!" Cortana sneered into TEAMCOM. She felt strange and free, wild and unchained, as if in attacking Kramer verbally she was working out all the hatred and spite that had been boiling inside her for days now. "Maybe, since you're so familiar with it, you can talk to me yourself. Do I sound crazy?"

"Yes," Private Briggs responded immediately. "You're rampant, and you need to be shut down." His voice deepened, darkened, and his shoulders seemed to unconsciously square, like a predator about to spring.

Corporal Hook stared down at the helmet in her hands, realizing that Cortana had been able to hear her the whole time, hearing for the first time her pain, realizing – realizing just who it was that she had in her head. Briggs' words stirred her anger again. "Private, let the lady speak. I think she's got plenty to say for herself!"

"Damn right I do," Cortana growled, her voice pregnant with meaning. "I may be 'just a computer,' Sergeant, but I know everything there is to know about, you; do you realize that? Everything!"

Inside, Kramer quaked. He believed her. Memory. Don't say it, please don't say it. The tremors returned.

"You were born on the Mars colony. Your father was a machinist, one of the last humans to work in the Misriah armories before it went full-auto. You wanted to be a Marine your entire life. At nineteen, you did. You were good at what you did. Fought all over the Colonies, and then..." Cortana paused, laughed quietly, savoring the dread that was rolling down Kramer's brow, letting the rage flow into hatred, and the hatred into pain. It tore at her, so she spewed it out as quickly as it came, washing him in it, drowning him. There was no guilt.

"...then ONI found you. They picked you and your unit for an operation to protect a Forerunner artifact from the Covenant and hold it until a more substantial force could show up. Operation Alpha Station, remember?"

Hook and Briggs looked toward the sergeant. He stood there, shoulders slumped like a man defeated, eyes distant and dead, mouth a tight, grim line. Not a word came from his mouth.

"It was a miserable flop. The Covenant had ONI beaten to it. An entire battalion of elites were bivouacked there, and not just any battalion - they were special forces! And the best part, Sergeant... you knew, didn't you? Deep down in your gut, you knew the shaky intelligence reports were true, and not only did you know, you volunteered your unit to scout the station, hoping for some glory, looking to distinguish yourself!"

Cortana's voice swelled in Kramer's headset as the images spewed across his mind's eye. Everything. The ambushes, the mass slaughter, and the desperation for his own life that drove him to throw his men, again and again, into rooms that he knew were occupied, and the gleam of the plasma swords that bristled in the hands of cloaked Sangheili, the way the blood flew and the screams echoed down the tall, narrow halls while he ran, ran like hell back to the Pelicans...

The AI's voice was fierce, vicious, cutting like a knife. "You spent eighteen months in a post-black ops rehabilitation clinic after that – you couldn't collect yourself after what happened. ONI scrubbed you clean, gave you a new assignment, tried to forge your military record so you'd have an explanation for being AWOL a year and a half. And you've never recovered."

Kramer looked toward the helmet in Corporal Hook's hands – the only reference point to the voice in his headset. His head swam with an unnamed, unnameable feeling. Sickness. Guilt.


The voice changed. Sarcasm, now: "So why don't you tell me what it means to be crazy, Patient 8109?"

There was a long moment of silence. Then, Briggs, voice low: "Damn."

Dari was not completely sure what was going on, but it frightened him. In a moment of clarity, the unggoy supposed that that was not too uncommon. He had been around humans long enough to understand that the tension in the sharp lines along Briggs' jaw, and the way Jayna's shoulder were set, combined with the nervous twitching that Kraymer was doing, meant that a very bad thing was about to happen.

He hadn't the slightest understanding what it was actually about, but he did know that Jayna and the other two humans were arguing. Loudly. And there was almost nothing that terrified him more than the sound of raised voices. He looked to Jayna. Her mouth had become a thin line, and she seemed... afraid.

Dari could identify with that. His limbs shook and his poor eyes watered and burned from the different aggression pheromones the humans were releasing. He sucked in a deep breath of methane to try to calm his nerves. Jayna. She had saved his life. Briggs, Dari knew, wanted to take it. The fear paralyzed him. It gripped and squeezed, the way he imagined an angry brute would.

The one thing that humanity did not understand until well after the war with the Covenant is the fact that grunts were easily the brightest of all the Covenant, frankly – though certainly not the most street-smart. But they learned more quickly, could absorb their environment and have it memorized within minutes. Their mental acuity was almost twice that of humans. They were mathematically brilliant, could do several dozen calculations in seconds.

So when Dari saw Briggs' hand almost imperceptibly twitch to his sidearm, he instantly realized the choice he had to make, though the understanding was simple – the way a child understands death.

He understood clearly: Stay with Jayna. Maybe die. Run. Maybe live.

Dari No-Claws. The surname literally meant that he was not known for his hand-to-hand combat skill. Which, amongst grunts, wasn't saying much. So when he looked up at Briggs' hand as it closed around the grip of his pistol, the inbred fear spoke to him.

But then, something else spoke and stirred a primal instinct within him. Courage.

Courage or fear? His short, fragile life passed through his claws. He made his choice.

Briggs' pistol leveled itself right between Corporal Hook's eyes. "Take that thing out of your head. Now," he snarled.

At that very moment, several things happened at once. Corporal Hook's own hand was flying down to her hip with the intent to return the favor. Briggs was anticipating this moment and began to squeeze the trigger on his weapon.

Dari No-Claws chose this moment to lunge at the private, screaming wordlessly.

Briggs' shot went wide, pinged off of a standing boulder. Hook instinctively threw herself aside, rolled in the dirt, dropping her gun as Dari clung tightly to Briggs' torso, digging his claws into the Marine's sides.

"Dammit, you little bitch!" Briggs shouted as he struck out with the butt of his gun, once, twice, finally grabbed the unggoy and threw him right into Kramer who stared, dumbfounded and impotent. The two collided violently and slammed into the ground in a tangle of legs and armor parts and methane tubes.

Briggs turned just in time to sidestep Corporal Hook's desperate rush. Her fingers caught the wrist of his gun hand as she rushed by and she hung on, using the centrifugal force to pull herself back in striking distance of the much larger Marine. Countering, he whirled on her, struck her once, twice in the face as hard as he could, bloodying her lips. But she hung on, grabbed the gun with her other hand and wrenched.

Briggs snarled in pain, struck her again in the face, tried to jerk away, but her fingers found the delicate nerves in his palm, buried beneath muscle. The sudden pain made his hand involuntarily jerk open, and he let go of the weapon, hand spasming.

Jana moved to bring the weapon to bear on him, but his foot shot out with lightning speed and knocked the weapon away. She stepped back, and now the two squared off, face to face.

The difference between the two was striking. Corporal Hook was no weakling by anyone's standard. But she was only five foot five in comparison to Lance Briggs' six foot two, and at one hundred sixty pounds weighed only half of what he bore on his armored frame. She was built for speed, he was built for power.

But the Private was hungry for blood, the tension that had built within him finally coming out. He was focused now on one thing, and only one thing: killing her. Jana could see that in his eyes, so she took the initiative: she attacked first, throwing a series of very precise, very quick punches at his exposed face.

But Briggs was not playing that game. He took two of the three blows, accepting the vicious strikes, then, at the opportune moment, one huge hand shot out and caught her wrist, twisted hard. She was forced to bend, and he brought an elbow down on her back in an echoing blow.

The hard plasteel and nanite weave plates caught most of the impact, but the weight slammed her to the ground, knocked her dizzy. He raised his booted foot as she rolled, trying to get away, slammed it down into her so hard that the air exploded from her lungs. Raised the foot, slammed it down again. Again. Jana couldn't hold back the agonized shout this time. Fear, as well as heaving, tearing pain boiled in her chest. She panicked, scrambled for purchase in the dirt, looking to get away, just away from here.

Hands grabbed her by the BDU, lifted into the air, and she was thrown, not far, but hard. Smashed into a tree and fell, wheezing for air and scrabbling for purchase in the dirt. Briggs had blood on his face. Her blood. His combat knife appeared in his hand, as if he were some kind of demon working conjuration to finish her off. He was less than two steps away.


Briggs shouted half from surprise, half from pain, and dropped to his knees. Dari stood behind him, short but triumphant, an assault rifle held wrong-way in his hands – too big for him to wield properly.

Jana had a single moment to capitalize upon the situation, and she took it. Gathering her flagging strength, she wrenched the knife from Briggs' nerveless hand and blindly stabbed. The knife jammed into his right shoulder, stayed locked in place when she tried to jerk it back out to finish him.

He lunged at her from his place on his knees, knocked her down, couldn't close his arms around her, fell, twisted on his knees, shoved Dari away. Now he was like a mad thing, a beast crazed in its blood flurry, struggled to his feet just in time to see Jana's boot connect with his face.

The Marine rolled back, and suddenly, Jana saw his goal: one of their fallen M5C's lying on the ground, loaded, safety off. She assessed: Dari's assault rifle was further from her than the pistol was to Briggs' hand - she didn't even spare it a further look. Grabbing Dari by the wrist, she tugged the unggoy along, turned, running, then there were gunshots, the sound of an M5C spitting two, three shots that didn't make contact, then the dense cover of the jungle. And she kept running, running, running...

Rendezvous Point Theta wasn't really much more than a shallow cave in the face of a steep cliff. There was a single approach: a treacherous climb up the face of the rock slide that had formed the crevice. Here, Eugene Roe, Maximus, and Ulee 'Dakol had staked out their place to wait for John to show up.

'Dakol was peering through the scope of his Stanchion Model 99 Special Application Scoped Rifle. It was one of the three weapons he'd chosen from the stockpile they'd pulled from the Forward Unto Dawn. The Sangheili took great care with it; he'd chosen it when Kramer had mentioned off-hand that there were very few of them still in the field. Thus far, it was very different from his own particle beam rifle, but it was all he had.

The elite pondered that thought. This was not the only time he'd been behind enemy lines, without resources, and left with only the weapons at hand. Not that he cared much for those times. There was no glory for the Sangheili who did the 'night work' of the Prophets now – now that the Covenant had been proven fraudulent, false, and voided. He remembered how he had felt when he heard of it: thousands of the gods-cursed Jiralhanae moving through High Charity, how they struck down Nadumis Bel 'Charanee as he sat in the doorway of his home, dishonored with a cruel, bloodless death, an Old One who had fought hundreds of battles in the Covenant's service. The stories of how they had gone into the sub-levels of the city, tore open the pregnant Sangheili females with their bare claws and dashed their infant babes to the ground.

He thanked the gods that he was not in troth. Even as an unattached male, thinking of what had happened enraged him deep within, his mind filling with the holovids that had been brought back by the Shipmaster, the blood smeared upon the walls and the brutes slaughtering the young ones right there in the streets while unggoy and kig-yar and worst of all, the San-Shyuum, walking past, nodding, approving, sometimes even helping.

He did not look back toward Maximus, but he wondered. He wondered if the brute knew. And if he did, if he approved.

But the elite pushed the thoughts of darkness aside. They were unbecoming and distracting to a warrior working in dark territory – even to a disgraced one such as he.

Suddenly, his motion sensor pinged with blue light. He checked – and his in-harness scanner quickly tagged it as a recognized scan of an enemy. He quickly turned his rifle, bringing the scope to bear on the direction from which the blip approached in the valley below. To his dark surprise, a Hornet VTOL was sliding across the treetops at a great rate of speed, rotors shooting out long blue flames. He quickly scoped in, following its approach with a trained hand. He used the built-in zoom – once, twice, looking for a pilot. One shot would finish him -

- then he saw the golden flash. The Chief had survived.

John sat down heavily, thumping to the stony floor of the cave. Roe, Maximus, and Dakol all sat across from him expectantly as he removed his helmet.

The Master Chief looked at the visor for a moment, just caught his breath for a moment, thinking. Cortana. He missed her terribly. It was worse now than it had been when he had made his ill-advised flight into High Charity, found her broken and defiled by the Gravemind. He had brought her out from captivity – and now, he was separated from her again, this time by his own order.

What a hateful thought that was.

He chose to ignore it. He had to ignore it. The irony was that continuing to dwell on it would cripple him. But he also was not hurling himself into the dark without thought. He knew the consequences of what he was doing.

He was aligning himself against the UNSC. He was standing in opposition to the very people he had worked for, fought for. He realized that, somewhere along the way, as he did battle on dozens of planets and wreaked havoc upon the enemy, his priorities had changed.

CPO Mendez had hammered it into his head that the Spartan ideal was the fight for Humanity. And this was not a wrong thought. He was just as much as human as the ODSTs and Marines and the civilians he and his brothers and sisters had given their lives for. But he and the Spartans had not been given that benefit of humanity. They had not been blessed with a choice. To defend humanity, they had been required, forced to become non-human. Super-human. That nature had been bred out of them. Those who did not ignore their humanity were removed.

The Master Chief remembered how, early on in the Spartan program, a year before their enhancement program began, two candidates were caught "in one another's' arms," as the whispered rumors amongst the other candidates had spread; they had not been taught about sex and sexuality except that to heed their primal stirrings was completely against their code of conduct. Each of them had a vague sense of definition and meaning about what that meant.

The two offenders had never appeared in training classes again, but the rumors again said that they had been shipped out to the Marines, taken out of the Spartan program. They had succumbed to humanity – to "love" – and therefore, could not be Spartan. Could not be a part of that band of brothers.

But even the training – necessary as it had been in their time of need – had not been able to force it out of them entirely. Somehow, somewhere, out on that battlefield in the dark nights reading books on the 'nets or playing the piano when Dr. Halsey could find a way to sneak him into a room with one, John had found his humanity. It had quietly, unconsciously developed in his heart as the Spartans bonded together in an unbreakable chain, blossomed as he fought alongside the brave men and women of the UNSC, and matured when he was given Cortana.

And now, it had taken over. Humanity's cause was no longer John's aim. That had passed. Now...

Cortana was his aim. He did not fight for Humanity, but because of it. And he thought it odd how she was now in the midst of coming into her humanity just as he was realizing his own.

He would fight for that. He'd die for that. For her.

But these – the brute, the elite, and the Marine in front of him – hadn't signed up for this. The Chief had pushed them headlong into his personal conflict and they had followed blindly. He couldn't push them any further – and he did not, could not, carry on his shoulders the weight of responsibility if they died fighting alongside him.

The choice had to be offered. So he looked up.

"So..." Eugene Roe began, brows raised with concern.

John sighed. "I took care of it," he replied simply.

"What is our next move?" Maximus queried earnestly, huffing. "I grow claustrophobic here."

"There is no next move," the Spartan replied tiredly, feeling the weight of what needed to be said. "I'm going to move on toward the Animus. You three can... go back to Bauer. Take him up on his offer to get you out of here."

The three looked at one another, surprised. Eugene Roe cleared his throat. "I think you're not lookin' at this clearly, son," he replied gently, his dark eyes shining with compassion and an odd, ferocious kind of amusement. "We're in this one for the long haul."

John cocked an eyebrow at 'son,' then slowly stood. "If we get caught, you'll all be held for war crimes and executed," he growled.

Maximus laughed aloud. "These two, perhaps, Demon, but I? I shall be shot on sight regardless. It's only by staying with you that I have even the slightest chance to survive. I owe it to young Dari."

The Spartan shrugged, accepting that that was true. "Granted. But you, Ulee, and 'Gene, go back. Get out of here while you can."

The elite and the Marine looked at one another for a moment. The two squad-mates seemed to silently speak to one another, then Ulee 'Dakol stepped forward.

The Sangheili stood straight and tall, and spoke passionately, fiercely, with a military bearing: "When I was an Ultra with the Fleet of Particular Justice, my brothers and I were dispatched to assault a human carrier during the battle for your Xiphos colony. Our Special Operations unit attacked from insertion pods with intent to leave an explosive in the reactor room. I had three such past victories notched in my sword.

"I was separated from my file and single-handedly armed the weapon to detonate, but my communications unit was disabled in the melee so that I could not communicate with my brothers, so I fled the carrier, thinking them dead. It was not until I arrived, wounded and bleeding, at the feet of my Shipmaster that I was told that they all perished on board the ship in the explosion while searching for me.

"I was disgraced, stripped of my name and my honor. I left them there to die, and the blame is my own. I would not, and will not be guilty of doing so again, even should it mean death.

"You, Spartan, fought against the Covenant's armies and were our most feared enemy. My brothers respect humans, yes, but we are allied with you for the same reason you are allied with us: necessity. I have no allegiance to those who pursue us, and I hold in contempt those who would turn upon their own brothers as has been done to you. You have fought alongside my brethren, and I honor that with loyalty. This is the Sangheili way.

"So speak no more: I, Ulee 'Dakol of the house of 'Dakolim, stand with you."

John was speechless.

It was the most the Sangheili had ever said to any of them. Before John could even hope to process what he'd been told, Eugene Roe stepped up, a slight grin on his dark face. "Son, I haven't any words like those, except to say, I'm an old man. I've fought this war for a hell of a long time, and I'll be damned if I ditch my chance to fight alongside Spartan-117 just because of a bunch of ONI spooks."

He paused, grinned at John's blank expression, then, "Never much liked them assholes anyway."

The Chief's helmet sat in the dirt on the floor of the cave, a holoscanned local map hovering in midair above it. Maximus crouched alongside him, his clawed finger pointing along a tiny image of a sheer cliff. "This will be the more difficult road, but it is much more direct," he offered, turning his huge, furry head toward the Spartan sitting beside him.

John silently pondered their options for a moment, then: "If they keep their pace, they're about four days out from the Animus at this rate. We're three days out, so time isn't a factor."

The brute chuffed and nodded in satisfaction. "Good, then. I am eager to be moving. These narrow spaces -"

'Dakol's voice crackled into TEAMCOM. "I have many incoming hostiles on my scanner... ground troops and vehicles."

John clenched his jaw and slowly rose. He and Eugene Roe crept toward the entrance while Maximus moved to the back of the cave to fetch his weapons, an eager gleam sparkling in his eyes.

"Vehicles? Do they know we're here?"Roe asked calmly, quietly as they crawled up behind the prone Sangheili.

Ulee rolled onto his side as they approached behind him, crouching low. "I have not seen any sign that indicates they come this way," he said under his breath.

The Chief bellied up between Ulee and Roe, taking the scope of the Stanchion in his hands. He peered down into the thinned forest below, clicked into the scope once, twice – peering five hundred yards downrange.

The trees were moving, rumbling with the power of an unseen force – light armor. Warthogs, no doubt, possibly even a Scorpion. The Spartan caught glimpses here and there of ground troops, all heavily armed: ODSTs with SPNKr charges, Marines loaded to the teeth with weapons and ammunition.

A show of force. And why would you make a show of force if there were no one to show it to?

"We've been found," John murmured.