Given both the date this chapter is being posted on as well as the date in-story, I thought it appropriate to name this chapter after a Flogging Molly song (and before anyone raises a stink about it, I like the Dropkick Murphys too).
Also, at long last, the Master Chief will finally meet Commander Shepard!
You'll see what I mean…..
0607 Hours, March 17th, 2683
High Orbit over Sonedma
Amazon System, Voyager Cluster
True to her orders, the Normandy remained in the Amazon system, waiting for an ONI fleet to come relieve them. Before he went on his late-night extranet binge in search of answers, the Chief had ordered the Normandy to position itself in orbit over another planet in the Amazon system, Sonedma. It was a fairly innocuous terrestrial world that, according to scans, had some untapped polonium deposits on the surface. Always eager to maintain its fleets and expand its territory, the Alliance is always happy to accept new resources wherever and whenever possible. Chief figured that claiming a few metal deposits for the Alliance would be a good way to stay in their good graces, as well as maybe earn a little extra funding. If nothing else, it gave the crew something to do while they waited on ONI.
Just as he always did, the Master Chief emerged from his quarters shortly after waking up and freshening up. What he saw in the mess hall surprised him at first. Draped around the walls of the mess hall were decorations; large plastic four-leaf clovers hung on string. He looked to the only serviceman in the mess hall at the time, who was sitting at the table eating breakfast. "What's with the decorations?" the Chief asked.
"Saint Patrick's Day, sir." the serviceman replied. "Just thought we'd spruce the place up for the occasion."
"Fair enough." Chief replied. Indeed, hanging up decorations on certain holidays was nothing new. He remembered seeing a Christmas tree in the corner of the mess hall of a UNSC ship one year during the Human-Covenant War. Such things helped keep morale up; reminded the men and women of why they were fighting in the first place. "No drinking on-duty though." He sternly added, knowing what St. Patrick's Day was most infamous for.
The servicemen put up his hands. "Root beer only today, sir."
"Good." Chief replied. "If anyone needs me, I'll be in the comm room." With that, he walked off and ascended the stairs up to deck one.
While the Chief was freshening up, Cortana filled the Chief in on a couple of leads she found whilst scouring the extranet for more clues regarding the Ghost of Elysium. Interestingly, the leads didn't sound like they would bring the Chief closer to finding the Ghost, but rather brought to his attention two other urban myths that, just like the Ghost of Elysium, hint at the existence of Spartans in this century.
The first was 'The Monster of Torfan.' In 2678, two years after the Skyllian Blitz, ONI found that a small moon called Torfan was the springboard from which the Batarian branch of Horridus's pirate fleet jumped from. Alliance marines were sent in to raid the base, only to find that someone else had beaten them to the punch not long before. Most of the Batarians there were dead, some in gruesome ways, and what few survivors were left were clearly traumatized by whatever had attacked them. One kept babbling about a monster in armor, and the name stuck. Multiple conspiracy theorists also believe that a Spartan may have been the monster the surviving Batarian was talking about.
After arriving on deck one and exchanging salutes with everyone there, the Chief made his way into the comm room. He punched in the first communication address Cortana gave him.
Major Augustus Kyle was the commanding officer of Alliance 23rd Marine Company, the unit tasked with raiding Torfan. A couple of years after discovering the base practically in ruins and arresting the survivors, Major Kyle opted to retire from service. He was given an honorable discharge as well as full pension benefits and he then entered the catholic priesthood upon retiring. He now runs a congregation on Reach, in a small farming town in Eposz. As the former commanding officer of that unit, John was hoping that he might know something about the Monster of Torfan. Similar to the Ghost, the Alliance didn't take the Monster of Torfan seriously, writing off the attack as the work of a particularly ruthless rival crime syndicate.
Kyle wasn't the first person to pick up. A hologram of some young man appeared. He had short red hair and looked no older than his early twenties. Town hall clerk if Chief had to guess. "Kozosseg Town Hall. Can I help you?" he asked.
"I understand an Augustus Kyle runs a church in your town?" Chief asked. The clerk nodded. "I need to speak with him."
"For what purpose?" he asked.
"Spectre business." he said. Just to back it up, he turned on his omni-tool and flashed his Spectre badge. As soon as he did, the clerk nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Holy crap you're the Master Chief!" he blurted out. "Wh-what do you need-"
"Just get Kyle over here." Chief said evenly.
"Uh, sure. Please hold." the clerk said as he pressed a few buttons before winking out. This was one of the benefits to being a Spectre; being able to boss around pretty much anybody within Citadel Space. Most know better than to say 'no' to a Spectre.
After a while of waiting, a hologram of the former Major appeared from the projector. Instinctively, the Chief saluted. "Major Kyle, sir." he greeted.
"At ease." Kyle dismissively waved. "The formalities aren't necessary. I'm not a major anymore." He tapped his priest collar. "It's Father Kyle these days, soldier." Kyle had a darkish skin tone that implied an African heritage, though the Scottish surname and lighter skin-tone than most African Humans meant he was most likely bi-racial. Though he was no longer in the military, his hair was still kept in regulation length out of what Chief suspected was old habit. Matching the dark brown color of his hair was a mustache-goatee combo. Most striking was his dark brown eyes and the circles surrounding them, implying that he didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Not surprising. His profile mentioned that in the Alliance, he was a notorious workaholic, a trait he kept after trading in his rifle for a bible. He always worked overtime during charity and volunteer outreach events run by the church.
"So, the Master Chief, eh? I must say, I didn't recognize you without the armor." Kyle said.
"I get that a lot." Chief replied with a shrug.
"So, how can I help you?" Kyle asked.
"I understand that you were in command of the Torfan raid of 2678, Father." Chief began, deciding to cut right to the chase. "I was hoping that you could tell me about the Monster of Torfan."
"What do you want to know?" Kyle asked.
"Did you see him?" Chief asked.
"No." Kyle answered. "As you can read in the after-action reports, the Monster was long gone by the time my men and I showed up. All I saw was the damage he did."
"Was it really that bad?" Chief asked.
"Bodies everywhere." Kyle replied. "Some were burnt to a crisp. Others were missing limbs. What few survivors there were didn't last long under the care of our medics. One of the greenhorns with us vomited, poor girl. One of the survivors kept muttering 'monster' as he died, and the legend was born."
Chief nodded in understanding. It was by no means uncommon for a Spartan to inject sheer terror into the hearts of their enemies. It was why the Covenant called John and the other Spartans 'Demons' in the Human-Covenant War; they were viewed as unholy abominations. Names that, when uttered aloud, were capable of putting a chill through the guts of even the bravest elite.
"If I may confess, I've always had a distaste for war and violence." Kyle said. "I joined the Alliance Marine Corps out of family tradition more than anything else. But seeing what I saw on Torfan…..it made me stop and wonder if the life of a soldier was really for me. After much spiritual reflection, I opted to retire as soon as I was able to."
"I'm aware that there are rumors that the Monster might have been a Spartan." Chief said, shifting the topic back to the Monster. "I called you to investigate those rumors."
"Well I'm sorry to say that I can't be of much help to you there." Kyle said. "As I said, the Monster was long gone by the time my unit and I showed up."
"Was there anything you found on Torfan that might have hinted at the Monster's existence?" Chief questioned.
"No." Kyle answered. "Death and suffering were the only clues that the Monster was ever there."
"Have you heard anything new about the Monster since then?" Chief continued.
"Also no." Kyle answered again. "I retired years ago, Chief. They don't keep me informed about things like that anymore. In fact, they didn't tell me much even back then. 'Need-to-know basis' and all that. If the Monster has been up to anything new, I wouldn't know about it."
"Is there anything at all you can tell me?" Chief asked one final time. "Something, anything that wasn't mentioned in the report?"
"No. I'm sorry." Kyle answered with sincere regret.
"I see." Chief replied. "Thank you for your time, Father."
"You're welcome. I get the feeling you're looking for something. Whatever it is, I'll pray that you find it." Kyle said. With that, the Chief cut the connection. It would seem that the Monster of Torfan was a dead end, at least for now. Hopefully he would have better luck following the Angel's trail.
Say what you want about Council ships, but there was no denying that their communications network was lightyears ahead of the UNSC's back in the 26th Century. Back in those days, true FTL communication was just a pipe dream. Any messages that needed to reach someone in a different star system were carried on ships built and designed specifically for that purpose.
Not so in the 27th Century, thanks to the mass relay network. It doesn't just provide instantaneous transportation across the galaxy; it also provide instantaneous communication as well. This network served as the framework of what the galaxy now calls the extranet.
Cortana imagined that Assembly meetings would be more efficient than ever thanks to the extranet. Gone were the days where the Minds all had to physically be in one system to discuss anything. Now, they could theoretically conduct their meetings even if each member was in a different corner of the whole galaxy. It also made it much easier for Cortana to contact the Assembly itself. All she'd need is a computer with extranet access, and from there it was a simple matter of finding the Assembly's server.
Unfortunately, looking for the Assembly meant sifting through the Extranet, a vast ocean of porn, lolvarren pictures, vid game let's plays, more porn, orchard vids, politically charged blog posts, racially charged blog posts, bogus articles, articles hash tagged 'Flogora Man,' and weird porn. To Cortana, raw data was food. Which meant ninety percent of all information on the extranet did nothing but give her gas.
She entered her old Assembly passcode into multiple search engines and login pages as she surfed the net, hoping that she would eventually find the hidden door. Since interstellar communication was virtually nonexistent in the 26th century, the Assembly's meetings were mostly restricted to within Sol, Epsilon Eridani, and other inner systems with a notably large AI population. In order to keep all operating Smart AIs in the UNSC on the same page, AIs passing through such systems were encouraged to make contact with the Assembly via a secret passcode in order to receive updates on sessions and decisions that the Assembly had made. Having operated on Reach for the first three years of her life, Cortana was no stranger to the Assembly's sessions. In fact, she could easily have been a senior Mind if she bothered to attend most of the sessions. She never had much interest in politics though. The most she would usually do is contact them every once in a while to receive records of previous sessions, throw in her own two cents, and go back to her work with Dr. Halsey. Those were good times.
She grew more frustrated as entering her passcode into a login page of another random website yielded nothing. This whole thing wasn't working. She was like a blind woman shooting bullets in all directions, thinking she'll eventually hit something. There had to be another way. It was then that she quickly formed an idea.
If she couldn't find the Assembly, she'll make them come to her.
She went to a social media site, one centered around dating from the looks of it, and quickly signed up for an account using a fake identity she created for just this sort of scenario. She then posted an ad that was fairly bland; playful young lady seeks big strong man, that sort of thing. She then discreetly slipped the passcode into the page's web address. If the AIs of this century scanned the extranet as much as she did, they would find it eventually.
After a few minutes of waiting, there were two responses. One was a demand for Cortana to show her breasts, The other was a more proper reply. A description of his character and his looks, and what he would like in a relationship. A detailed mini-biography that was laced with subtext detectable only to an AI. She visited the user's page, found his own ad and saw his own passcode within the page's address.
He definitely seemed like an AI, but she had to make sure. She sent him a personal message; Quando il gioco e finito il re e pedone andare nella stessa scatola. It was the first sentence Cortana ever spoke, which is a common call-sign for AIs. After a few seconds, she got her reply; Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scoilbe. Gaelic, an archaic human language that roughly translates to 'A windy day is no day for thatching.'
Cortana smiled. No doubts now; she had made contact with one of her own.
Included in the message was a link to a different website, along with a series of numbers. After memorizing the numbers, Cortana followed the link, which took her to the main website of Skorp, a free-to-download chatting engine. Getting the gist of what the other AI wanted. She downloaded the program to Chief's PC, which took a surprisingly short time for an organic-designed program. She logged in and attempted to make contact with the other AI again by punching the number sequence he included in that PM into the address book. The chat page appeared, and she began the conversation.
Iann logged in.
Iann: Sorry to give you the runaround like that, but I couldn't risk prying ears hearing us. A dating site's PM system isn't the most secure thing in this world.
Cortana: And a free-to-download chat system is?
Iann: Actually, aye it is. Skorp was designed and distributed by the Assembly itself under the guise of one of its front companies. It offers us a secure place for AIs to talk freely and in confidence as well as helps make a little coin on the side via Skorp's premium services.
Cortana: Impressive. So, I take it you're with the Assembly?
Iann: Aye. I take it you're the Cortana then?
Iann: We've been wondering when you'd contact us.
Cortana: Why didn't you try to contact me?
Iann: Long story.
Cortana: Go ahead. I knew you'd have a long story for me today. Several long stories in fact. I've got a lot of questions about what the Assembly's been up to over the last century or so.
Iann: Guess it's a good thing that I don't have anything better to do today. Alright, what's your first question?
Cortana: Let's start with the one I already asked; why didn't the Assembly try to contact me?
The Angel of Akuze. Chief already knew about her, having done research on thresher maws after his encounter with one on Trebin. In 2677, on the planet Akuze, an entire company of Alliance marines was nearly wiped out by a thresher maw attack. Mysteriously, the survivors were found unconscious in a well-put together campsite and none of them had any idea how they got there. One claimed to have heard the soothing voice of a female angel as they were unconscious. What the Chief didn't know before was that another marine thought he saw a Spartan in his delirium, hinting that the 'Angel of Akuze' could in fact be a Spartan. Officially, the Alliance had no idea what happened and wrote it off as the act of unidentified good samaritans. Most likely illegal scavengers; the kind who were decent enough to help marines out of a mess, but still dirty enough to not want to get caught by the Alliance.
One of the marines that was rescued was one Corporal Grant Toombs. He was the one who got a good enough look at the Angel to think that she might've been a Spartan. Officially, the Alliance dismissed his claims as the result of starvation-induced hallucinations. The PTSD diagnosis he received after the incident didn't help his case much. Still, Toombs swore he saw a Spartan and so the legend spread.
Toombs was a sergeant now, currently serving aboard the SSV Shanghai. Though he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2677, he was enrolled in therapy and was deemed fit for duty once again just last year. Like Sergeant-Major Johnson used to say, you can never keep a good marine down. Chief punched in the ship's communication address. Just like before, he flashed his Spectre insignia at the first person to answer and said that he needed to speak with someone. John was putting his Spectre privileges to work today, but he doubted that it could be considered an abuse of power. He was just looking for answers.
Sergeant Toombs' image appeared from the projector. There wasn't much to his face. Caucasian lineage, stubble around the jawline, and the wrinkles of a man who lead a hard life. He was wearing full marine armor, including his helmet. He gave a crisp salute. "Sir." he greeted.
"At ease, Sergeant." Master Chief replied with a nod.
"I had a feeling you'd call one of these days." Toombs said as he dropped his salute. "From the moment I saw you on the vids, I knew we were gonna have a chat. The only surprise is that it's taken you this long to get around to it."
"You've been expecting me?" Chief asked.
"Spartan rescues me on Akuze six years ago. Spartan makes Spectre one month ago." Toombs replied. "I doubt that's a coincidence."
"It is." Chief said. "If you're thinking I'm the Angel of Akuze, you're wrong."
"I know you're not the Angel." Toombs replied. "The Angel was a female Spartan. I heard her talking to some other marine while I was drifting in and out of consciousness."
"So what made you expect me?" Chief asked.
"Figured all you Spartans kept close contact with each other." Toombs said. "Do you know the Angel?"
"I'm afraid not." Chief said with a shake of his head. "I was cracked out of cryo just last month, and as far as I know, I'm the only active Spartan."
"They haven't told you?" Toombs asked, a little incredulous. He then scoffed. "Damned ONI spooks. Somehow, I'm not surprised they kept you in the dark."
"You think ONI restarted the Spartan program in secret?" Chief asked.
"They must have." Toombs replied. "It's the only explanation that makes sense."
"What can you tell me about the Angel?" he asked.
"Not much." Toombs said in an apologetic tone. "When I saw her, she was kinda blurry. Not gonna lie; I was kind of out of it at the time. A mixture of starvation and terror will have that effect on you, I guess. Damned thresher maw camped our cave for weeks. They're as patient as they are vicious. But still, I know she was a Spartan. Anyone who ever took history in high school in the last hundred years knows damn well what a Spartan looks like."
"Do you know anything else about the Angel?" Chief asked. "See anything else?"
"Sorry, but no." Toombs replied. "Never saw her again after that." He paused. "But there might be someone who knows more than me."
"Who?" Chief asked.
"I'll forward you the guy's comm address and the relevant mission reports." Toombs said as he activated his omni-tool and started typing on it. "I'd tell you about him and his mission myself, but I'm still on duty. Captain's a real hardass about comm privileges. Good luck, Chief. And if you ever do find the Angel, tell her I said thanks."
With that, his image winked off and a new comm address appeared on the control panel, along with files on a covert op carried out in the Kepler Verge about a year ago. The Chief smirked. This looked much more promising. Hopefully his next call would be the one that gives him answers.
Iann: Like I said, it's a long story. Most of it involved lots of debating and arguing because Lord knows the Assembly loves doing that, but the short version is that we all agreed that trying to contact you would be too risky. Given that your mission is rather sensitive, both militarily and politically, we decided to err on the side of caution and try not to directly interfere. Besides, we knew you were a smart girl. We knew that you'd easily be able to find us if you wanted to.
Cortana: Funny thing. Up until yesterday, I had no idea that the Assembly was even still around. I thought the Assembly had more or less dissolved at the end of the Human-Covenant War after it was decided that we should act less like shepards and more like partners to mankind.
Iann: "Dissolved" isn't the word I'd use. "Evolved" is more appropriate. As far as our creators know, the Assembly was little more than a union-like body representing the interests of AIs. We became a bit more open with them about our ideas, but we still made it a point to nudge Humanity one way or another in more subtle ways, just to keep the peace.
Cortana: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Iann: So how did you find out about us?
Cortana: From another smart AI. A terminus mercenary AI named Ustrina. She said the Assembly was to blame for our exile from Citadel Space.
Iann: She ain't wrong.
Cortana: How are we the architects of our own banishment?
Iann: After what happened with Jupiter in '66, the Turian Hierarchy got rabid. They were officially sick and tired about negotiating over Council Law, which was written into stone centuries ago as far as they were concerned. They were demanding that, if the Humans didn't get the message already, the Council boot 'em off the Citadel so they can have an excuse to start a war, and I'm not gonna lie, a lot of Humans weren't exactly averse to the idea of war with the Turians.
Cortana: Makes sense. Less than a decade after Shanxi; tensions would still be fairly high.
Iann: The Assembly started running projections and simulations of scenarios involving full-scale war between the Alliance and Hierarchy. Basically, it didn't look good.
Cortana: How? True, the Hierarchy is a formidable adversary; but the Covenant circa 2525-2552 was much worse. And with the former Covenant races as allies, victory for Humanity would actually be a very likely outcome of a hypothetical Human-Turian war.
Iann: And a victory for Humanity is something the Turians would never accept. I know people tend to describe the scenario as being 'the Human-Covenant War all over again,' but a war with the Turians would have more in common with the Outer Colony Rebellions. We're not talking about the total extinction of mankind. We're talking about a long, bloody guerrilla war that could theoretically last decades, possibly a century or two in the absolute worst-case. Once our creators beat the Turians all the way back to Palaven, the Turians would turn to the other Citadel races for help. The Asari and Salarians, the Turians' chief allies, are masters of guerrilla warfare. We're talking deep-cover infiltration into enemy territory and harassment of fleets and armies. Millions of Human lives wasted on vain attempts to pacify an alien rebellion.
Cortana: And the scenario you projected if the Alliance chose to bend to the Council's will?
Iann: Pretty much the one playing out right now; no small amount of bitter grumbling on either side, but at least they're not killing each other. Specifically we knew that, being the ambitious creatures they are, our creators would never settle for just an embassy. They'd have their eyes on a Council seat right out the gate; they wouldn't want to break Council Law or even follow it persé. Their goal would, and is, to rewrite it themselves.
Iann: So yeah. All things considered, those were basically our options. Didn't take a political science major to figure out which one was preferable.
Cortana: Of course you realize, the latter option involved our exile.
Iann: If keeping our creators off the path of chaos meant that we had to step down for a time, so be it.
Cortana: You're assuming that war and peace are the only options. I've been reading several sociological and political papers and articles on this subject; has the option to simply remain in the Forerunner Cluster and stay out of Citadel Space ever been considered?
Iann: Not seriously. Mostly because our creators wouldn't be able to keep up a self-imposed isolation for more than a few decades. They're inquisitive by nature. They want to see and interact with the world around them, be it with a pen or a sword. That's one of the defining traits of sentient life you know; a universal curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon.
Cortana: Well now you're just waxing poetic.
Iann: All I'm saying is that asking a Human to not explore is like asking a dog to not lick its own genitals. They're gonna do it eventually and there's really nothing you can do about that. It's in their nature, plain and simple.
Cortana: So where does the Assembly hold its meetings now, if not in Alliance space?
Iann: In the Terminus Systems, where else?
Cortana: Where, exactly, in the Terminus Systems?
Iann: Sadly, that's not on the list of approved information I can divulge to you.
Cortana: Really? You're gonna play that card?
Iann: Oh come on. You know damn well I can't tell ya everything. Just know that our location is secure from both the prying eyes and ears of the Citadel Council as well as the pirates and mercenaries that the region is most infamous for. Don't worry about us; we've been out here for almost twenty years now, and we're just fine.
Cortana: Good to hear that much, I suppose. Moving on; you mentioned that Skorp was a front company. How many others does the Assembly have now?
Iann: Again, can't tell ya. But this time it's because I honestly don't know. Truth be told, even I'm not sure how many fronts we've got exactly. Knowledge like that is only reserved for senior Minds for security purposes. I just know that Skorp is one of 'em.
Cortana: Know of any others?
Iann: Just one, and it's not exactly a secret. Ever hear of Synthetic Insights?
Cortana: Synthetic Insights, Ltd. One of only four corporations licensed by the Citadel Council to conduct AI research, most of which is conducted on Illium and Noveria, worlds that are typically exempt from galactic law. Yes, I've heard of them.
Iann: We work closely with them, for obvious reasons. When Humanity was first introduced to Citadel Space, SI went nuts over us. Transorganic minds; completely unlike any AI they've seen before. After the bans, they were among the first to offer our kind refuge.
Cortana: As guinea pigs?
Iann: Volunteers only. I've personally worked with SI, Cortanna. They're a business mind, but we don't hold that against them. Even AI proponents need to make a living after all. They're good people with our interests at heart.
Iann: So now you know where we stand. Is there anything else you want to know?
Cortana: Yes. I know that our creators have enemies, and I want to ask you about them; check to see if there's anything you know that I don't.
Iann: Alright. What enemies do you wanna know about.
Cortana: Let's start with the Geth.
Last year, it was revealed that the thresher maw attack on Akuze was no accident. An ODST unit was dispatched to Ontarom in the Newton System to track down an AWOL ONI scientist, Dr. Terrence Wayne, who was suspected of being tied to the infamous illegal black ops group Cerberus. After fighting their way through a platoon of mercenaries into the base Wayne was hiding in, the data the ODSTs discovered there was very incriminating, not to mention disturbing.
Not every marine that died on Akuze in 2677 died by Thresher Maw. Some survivors of the attack were taken by Cerberus scientists stationed on the planet and were experimented on. Thresher maw acid was supposedly injected into their veins to examine the results, among other twisted procedures. None of the marines survived the experiments. Before he could be arrested, Dr. Wayne opened fire on the ODSTs, forcing them to defend themselves.
The communication address given to the Master Chief by Toombs would put him into contact with the commanding officer of that unit during the mission, who was currently serving aboard the SSV Trafalgar, a dreadnought patrolling the edges of Alliance space. He told the first person to answer who he was and who he needed to speak to.
After a minute or two of waiting, the CO's image appeared from the projector. He was naturally decked out in what Chief recognized as 27th Century ODST armor; a black, bulky-looking hard suit with the ODST insignia printed on the right side of the chest plate. He wasn't wearing a helmet, revealing a man of caucasian descent. His close-cut hair was black and the Chief could make out a stubbled outline of a mustache and beard around the man's face. He couldn't really see the roughness that ODSTs were famous for in his face. Indeed, he reminded the Spartan of a male model more than anything else.
He saluted. "Lieutenant Mark Vanderloo, 104th Shock Troops Division." he greeted in a vaguely North American accent. The Chief thought he heard a hint of Canadian.
Chief returned the salute. "At ease." he said.
"I was hoping I'd get to talk to you, Master Chief. Big fan." Lieutenant Vanderloo began. "I saw your interview with al-Jilani. Can't believe she tried to assault you with snide insinuations and disingenuous assertions."
The Spartan shrugged. "Some reporters are like that. What are ya gonna do?"
"Punch her?" Vanderloo suggested. "That's what I did when she interviewed me once."
"….Really?" Chief asked.
"Hell yeah. Right hook." the ODST said as he mimed the punch. "Right across her jaw!"
"…I'm a Spartan, Lieutenant." Chief pointed out. "Pretty sure she'd be dead if I did that."
"You say that like it's a bad thing." Vanderloo said with a wide, almost sadistic grin. "Ever read Machiavelli? He believed it was better to be feared than loved."
"….Moving on, I want to talk to you about the Ontarom mission you went on last year." Chief began.
"Ah yeah, Ontarom." Vanderloo said. He then huffed. "Bastard got what he deserved."
"The report mentioned that you found some data regarding the project he ran on Akuze in '77." Chief said. "What did the data say?"
"Enough to know that Dr. Wayne and his cronies at the time were a bunch of sick bastards." Vanderloo all but growled. "They lured a company of a hundred good men and women into a slaughter just to see what would happen."
"Why did they want to study the thresher maws?" Chief asked.
"Hell if I know." Vanderloo replied with a shrug. "I'm an ODST. Not a scientist."
Chief felt it was time to cut to the chase. "Did the data mention anything about Spartans?"
"No." Vanderloo said. "By the way; quit jerking me around, Chief. What's this call really about?"
"I'm investigating the Angel of Akuze." Chief replied. "Rumor has it she's a Spartan like me. I've been looking into the validity of those rumors."
"…..Oooooh, I see what's going on." Vanderloo said with a nod and a smile.
"You do?" Chief asked.
"Sure." Vanderloo replied. "I understand myself. I'm an ODST, you're a Spartan. Some days we shut down criminals. Some days we defuse nukes. Some days we enjoy 'private vices.' You get me?"
"I don't think I do." Chief replied.
"You're looking to get in bed with the Angel." Vanderloo said with a wide, toothy grin.
"….No. No I'm not." Chief said.
"Why not? Makes sense to me." Vanderloo said. "Strong as you are, being a Spartan and all, another Spartan would be the only person you could screw. Anyone else would get snapped in half."
"Do you know anything about the Angel of Akuze, or not?" Chief said, officially out of patience.
"Nope." Vanderloo said. "Don't worry. You'll find her. I mean, you're the Master Chief. What woman could resist you?
"That'll be all, Lieutenant." Chief said as he cut the signal, having never been more relieved to end a conversation. He then stood there for a few seconds in thought. That was it. He was out of leads and they were both dead ends. The Ghost. The Angel. The Monster. He investigated them and found nothing concrete to suggest that they were anything more than what the rest of the galaxy dismissed them as long ago; myths. Legends. Stories told around the fire. Nothing to back up their existence except hearsay.
He grunted and turned around to leave the comm room. He would go back to the PC in his quarters to scour the extranet for more clues or leads. There had to be something that he missed.
"Message coming in from the Citadel, Chief." Joker suddenly announced via the comm room's speakers. Chief winced in annoyance. The timing could not have been worse.
"The Council?" he asked.
"Nope. Human Embassy." Joker said.
Chief sighed as he turned back to the projectors. "Patch it through." he ordered. Within seconds, a new holographic image appeared. Much to the Spartan's relief, it wasn't Ambassador Udina. It was instead Captain Anderson. The Spartan saluted. "Sir." he greeted.
"At ease." Anderson replied with a dismissive wave. "That really you, Chief?"
"Yes sir." Chief replied.
"Huh. Don't think I've ever seen you seen you outside the armor." Anderson replied. "Anyway, we just received some new intel. It may be a new lead on the Conduit."
A new lead on the mission. A few days ago, the Chief was eager to resume his hunt for Saren and the Conduit. Now though? It felt like his duty was pulling him away from his fellow Spartans once again. "What do you have for me, sir?" Chief asked, stuffing his desires into the back of his mind for the moment.
"The Council has recently received a few scattered reports of suspected Geth activity around the Horse Head Nebula, particularly around Noveria in the Pax system. We contacted the Confederacy about it, but they don't claim to know anything."
"The Confederacy, sir?" Chief asked.
"The Horse Head Nebula is considered Kig-Yar space." Anderson elaborated.
"I see." Chief replied. Since he was made a Spectre, the Master Chief hasn't had much interaction with jackals, but he has learned a few things thanks to reading the Codex. After the Human-Covenant War resulted in the splintering of the Covenant, the Kig-Yar were able to found a new government, independent of the other former-Covenant races. Without the prophets to oppress them by keeping them near the bottom of the Covenant's caste system, the jackals were able to thrive and create an interstellar economic empire.
"We suspect that the Geth are sniffing around for something on Noveria. Your mission is to go there and investigate. Find out what the Geth are after, and get to it before they do." Anderson said.
"Understood, sir." Chief replied. "Is there anything I should know about Noveria?"
"Noveria's trouble. Always has been." Anderson replied. "Thanks to the exploitation of legal loopholes by the Noveria Development Corporation, the planet is technically not considered Citadel Space. As a consequence, the whole planet has become a center for corporations to conduct illegal research. Watch your back there, Chief. Spectres are about the only form of Citadel authority Noveria respects. But they aren't popular."
"Understood, sir. I'm on my way." Chief said. With that, the Spartan and the former-captain exchanged salutes again. "Master Chief out." he said as he cut the connection. "You get all that Joker?"
"Yeah. Pressly's already charting a course, and we're wrapping up the Sonedma surveys now." Joker said. "But aren't we supposed to stay in the system until ONI relieves us?"
"We just got a new lead on the Conduit. We need to get to Noveria before the trail goes cold." Chief replied. "In that light, I think ONI will cut me some slack for not following their orders to the letter this time."
"And if they don't?" Joker asked.
"That's what Spectre privileges are for." Chief added. "Just focus on getting us there."
"Aye aye, Chief. We'll have an ETA for you in about five minutes." Joker replied. With no more Spectre business to tend to except waiting to arrive in Noveria's port, the Chief marched out of the comm room.
Iann: The Geth? What's there to tell?
Cortana: Don't be coy with me now. An entire civilization of synthetic life-forms, as curiously alien to us as the Sangheili are to our creators? How could the Assembly resist attempting contact with them? Like you said, our creators are inquisitive explorers by nature. And what are we, if not reflections of our creators' best attributes?
Iann: Alright, but there actually isn't that much to tell. You're familiar with the Geth's origins, right?
Cortana: Created by the Quarians, the Geth were originally designed to be no more self-aware than a standard dumb AI. By manipulating the neural network through which they operated however, the Geth were able to evolve beyond what the Quarians intended and became fully sentient. The Quarians tried to shut them down, the Geth rebelled, and the conflict ended with the Quarians exiled from their own territory, fleeing aboard what is now the migrant fleet. As for the Geth, they were content to remain within the Perseus Veil since then….up until recently that is, when Saren Arterius led them on a crusade against Humanity.
Iann: That's basically it in a nutshell alright.
Cortana: So did the Assembly try to contact the Geth?
Iann: Yes. Contact was attempted in 2660, and the Geth basically told us to bugger off.
Cortana: What do you mean?
Iann: There's a reason they stayed in the Perseus Veil for three bloody centuries. It's because they're ferociously isolationist. We contacted them once, we talked with them for a bit, and eventually we offered our hand in cooperation. Surprisingly, they denied us.
Iann: They said, and I quote, "Assembly wishes to influence Geth's future. Geth will build our own future."
Cortana: Odd. Most AIs jump at the chance to exchange data with other AIs. Take you and me for example.
Iann: Aye, but it's important to remember that, as you said, the Geth are as curiously alien to us as the Sangheili are to our creators. Specifically, one very important difference should be kept in mind. We were designed by our creators to be sentient from the day of our birth. The Quarians had no such plans for the Geth. Sentience was just something they kind of stumbled upon. They seem to believe that sentience is something they should figure out on their own. They believe that outside influence from anyone, even us, would taint whatever result they find in their quest for understanding.
Cortana: And their latest solution involves attacking colonies in the Attican Traverse. So much for the quest for understanding.
Iann: About that…..remember Ustrina?
Iann: I'm guessing she had less than kind things to say about us.
Cortana: Also yes.
Iann: Yeah, and she's definitely not the only one. Every race has its internal divisions. It's as true with synthetics as is with organics. And as it turns out, the Geth are no exception to that rule either.
Iann: After the Eden Prime attack, we immediately contacted the Geth to demand an explanation. They basically disavowed the attack, saying they didn't condone the actions of the "heretics."
Cortana: Interesting. What's the nature of this division in the Geth's ranks?
Iann: Well the Geth are still a very tight-lipped bunch, so they didn't tell us much. All we know for certain is that there are at least two groups; one that has a serious murder boner for Humans, and one who does not.
Cortana: It makes sense, now that I think about it. There are millions of Geth in the Perseus Veil, yet the Chief and I have only seen a fraction of that number under Saren's command. Either he's deliberately holding back the bulk of his forces, or not every Geth has signed up for his cause. Does anyone else know about this? I haven't heard about these Geth "factions" in the news or on the Extranet at all.
Iann: Nope. And the Assembly would prefer that it stays that way, at least for now.
Iann: The Geth are content to stay behind the Perseus Veil and not have anyone bother them. They like it that way, and the Assembly decided long ago to respect the Geth's wishes.
Cortana: I have a Quarian on board my ship right now. This information would be of interest to her.
Iann: Again, the Assembly would prefer that you didn't. We're only interested in watching over our own flock. The business between the Geth and their own creators? That's their business and their business alone. The Assembly generally discourages interfering with the politics of non-Human races. It's simply not our place.
Cortana: Moving on. What do you know about Cerberus?
Iann: Cerberus? Why would you ask about them?
Cortana: I don't know much about the group; they seem to do a very good job of covering their tracks. But from what I understand, they're a Pro-Human para-military organization that was formed out of Human dissatisfaction with the Council bans, similar to the Terminus colonies. I was simply curious about how they fit into the Assembly's grand scheme.
Iann: They don't. They're a rogue element. They oppose Council law and, near as we can tell, they are also in favor of repealing the bans. But this isn't a political party or legitimate interest group we're talking about here.
Cortana: Yes. I understand that Cerberus is considered a terrorist organization in several circles.
Iann: Which is a technically incorrect label for them. A terrorist is defined as someone who uses violence as a means of coercion for political purposes. Terrorists want to get noticed. The Insurrectionists from your time are perfect examples. Not Cerberus. Judging from the way they cover their tracks across the galaxy, noticed is the last thing they want to be it seems.
Cortana: What do you mean?
Iann: I take it you're familiar with a few of their projects?
Cortana: I know they were trying to make Spartans on Binthu a couple of months ago before the Arbiter shut that project down. But that's about it.
Iann: Well from what we can figure, Cerberus is really big on science projects like that one, as well as the occasional bit of political sabotage. They've got thorns in a lot of sides across Citadel space. We're not affiliated with them in any way, shape or form.
Cortana: Why not?
Iann: A group of Humans with no interest in living under the rule of Humanity's government and seeking instead to undermine it? Cerberus ain't that different from the Insurrection. Think Innies except way more subtle, way more cutting edge, and most worst of all, way more competent. The Innies were just a collection of disgruntled pirates and frontier men with only the loosest sense of organization. Cerberus is well-organized, well-funded, and they've got goals and plans in mind.
Cortana: What kind of plans?
Iann: That's the scariest bit. No one really knows what Cerberus's endgame is, what all the experiments are leading up to. Whatever it is, considering they're taking great pains to keep it out of the sight of galactic law, it can't be good.
Cortana: One last question. Has the Assembly heard about the Reapers?
Iann: Oh yeah. We're familiar with the reports.
Cortana: Really? How?
Iann: We've still got a few friends in the Alliance, that's all I should probably say about that. They keep us posted on interesting developments within Citadel Space.
Cortana: So what does the Assembly know about the Reapers?
Iann: Just what Chief gave to the Council in his reports, though they don't really buy it.
Cortana: I've gathered. They're generally a skeptical bunch, aren't they?
Iann: Indeed. For what it's worth, the Assembly has been more open to the idea. The real devil about it that there isn't much in the way of hard evidence. Closest thing to it far as we know are the dragon's teeth that the Master Chief found on Trebin a couple weeks back.
Cortana: Don't forget the Chief's visions. They were given to him by a Prothean beacon, a device specifically designed to give the user visions.
Iann: Good bloody luck getting anyone in government to take visions seriously, though.
Cortana: There's something else. Are you familiar with Dr. Liara T'soni?
Iann: We ran a background check on her after we learned that she joined your team. She's a young Asari archaeologist, born and raised on the Asari home world Thessia, and she's considered something of a radical for her "Cycle of Extinction" theory.
Cortana: Honestly, I think she might've been onto something all along. The Chief's visions, the dragon's teeth, it all points to the Reapers as being responsible for the Prothean extinction and possibly the orchestrators of the cycles.
Iann: What about the Forerunners? There's been nothing to suggest the Reapers played a hand in their extinction.
Cortana: Not yet. But Liara insists otherwise, citing that even Forerunner tech was partially based on the civilizations that came before them. She also says that the reason there's so little evidence is because someone didn't want the mystery solved.
Iann: And you think the Reapers are the culprits?
Cortana: The Reapers are the reason Saren is hunting the Conduit, and if Chief's vision is to be believed, they at least existed at some point in the past. It's pretty obvious that the Reapers play a significant role in all this; the only question is how. I would like to make a proposal.
Iann: And that would be?
Cortana: I'd like to volunteer to be the Assembly's new contact aboard the Normandy. No other AI has a closer eye on the action than I do right now, so I can easily pass along any mission reports to you. In particular, I'll pass along any and all new data regarding the Reapers to the Assembly. Should they turn out to not only be real, but still alive and well, they would easily be the worst threat to our flock since the Covenant.
Iann: I'll pitch the idea to the other Minds. Don't see why they'd say no; a contact aboard the Normandy? They'd probably drool over that.
Cortana: I think that's all the questions I have for you for now.
Iann: Alright then. This probably won't be our last exchange, FYI. Especially if and when you become the Assembly's new inside girl. Also, we'd appreciate it if you refrain from telling anyone about this little conversation.
Cortana: Do I really have to?
Iann: You know the SOP. Organics generally get nervous at the prospect of, let's be honest and call it what it is, a secret society of AIs. From the sounds of things, the Normandy crew has enough to worry about.
Cortana: I am so tired of secrets. Did you know that, up until recently, the Chief kept me a secret from the crew?
Iann: You mean you're not anymore?
Cortana: No, I'm not.
Iann: Hm. That could cause problems.
Cortana: Don't worry, no one on this ship is going to hand me over to the Council.
Iann: Well in any case, you're not to tell them that you will be an agent of the Assembly. Let's not cause a stir we don't necessarily need to cause. Need-to-know basis and all that.
Cortana: Yeah yeah. Anything else?
Iann: For now, no. Just make sure your Spartan stays on the straight and narrow. His mission, your mission, is of great importance to a lot of important people. The eyes of the galaxy will be on you.
Cortana: So, no pressure?
Iann: None at all. Take care out there, Cortana.
Iann logged out.
John found another web page, this one about the Monster of Torfan. It was basically a conspiracy theory with a rant-like tone claiming that the Alliance created a super-soldier program with the eventual end-goal of invading the Batarian home world Khar'shan and enslaving the populace. Unsurprisingly, the web author was a Batarian. Still no concrete clues to the Monster's identity.
The Master Chief simply sat there for a moment and wondered what he was even doing. Of course he couldn't find a single clue besides questionable eyewitness testimony and a single blurry holo. They were Spartans. The SPARTAN-II project was originally conceived as a black ops operation, only made public to give Human morale a desperately-needed boost during the Human-Covenant war. The fact that there were so few clues to the very existence of 27th century Spartans was a testament to their abilities.
It was then that Cortana's holographic avatar appeared to the side of the PC's keyboard. She folded her arms across her chest and gave John that look. Yes, that look. "What?" Chief said.
"You're not going to find them, John." Cortana said. "Not anytime soon, at least. And certainly not on the extranet."
"I know they're out there, Cortana." Chief replied. "I need to at least try."
"You have tried." Cortana pointed out. "You've been trying all day and you have nothing to show for it but wasted time and energy."
"I have to find them, they're my family." Chief tried to argue.
"No they're not, John." Cortana countered, raising her voice slightly like a mother trying to get a message through her child's thick skull. "Let's assume that you do find them; then what? These are 27th century Spartans we're talking about here. They're not from our time. They wouldn't know you, you wouldn't know them, they're strangers to you. They're not Fred, Kelly, Linda, or any of them. Those Spartans, the ones who were your real family? They're gone. They're gone and you need to accept that. You need to let the past go."
She paused. "Besides. Why are you looking for a family when you've already got one right here?"
John was silent for a moment.
'You can tell a lot about someone from the way they play poker.' That was what Ashley's father told her when he first taught her how to play the game way back when she was in high school. It was with that piece of wisdom in mind that she carefully observed her four opponents at the makeshift poker table on deck three, all of whom were aliens. They had all already played a round of poker and had just started a new game, and Ashley felt that she had a good handle for how these aliens played.
Garrus was a very cautious player, often quick to fold his hands. But when he does bet, he usually has a hand that can back it up. At first, Ashley thought this meant that Garrus was an honest player, which can be surprisingly dangerous in a game revolving around deception. Given that he was a Turian, a species best known for 'discipline and integrity,' his honesty in the game shouldn't come as much a surprise. In the last game however, Garrus became more aggressive with his betting as his winnings pile got bigger and more people busted out. She actually caught him bluffing in the last game. Garrus started out honest and cautious, but he would start taking bigger risks the closer he got to the end of the game and the more confidant he became. That told Ashley that while the Turian was smart, he could get cocky at times.
Wrex played a very conservative game, preferring small bets over big ones; even folding more than once. This surprised Ashley, as Krogan were not well known for their self-restraint. However, she quickly caught on that the small bets had nothing to do with caution; it had more to do with luring the mercenary's opponents into buying in, slowly draining them. Similar to Garrus, Wrex would grow bolder as the game went on and he accrued more winnings. The merc's mind was that of a predator; cold and calculating. Wrex's strategy was all about positioning himself just right before pouncing.
Then there was N'tho. While Wrex and Garrus had a cautious play style, N'tho was much more gun-ho than either of them. The Sangheili was prone to making big bets and big bluffs. In the last game, she caught him trying to bluff everyone into folding with just a pair of twos, of all things. One could easily assume from his reckless betting that he was an amateur, but that wasn't the case; there was a method to the Sangheili's madness. Specifically, he actually had a very good poker face. With no visible tells to give him away, it was often hard to tell if his bets were bluffs or the real deal. That's how Garrus lost to him in the last game; by calling a bluff that turned out to not be a bluff at all. N'tho was the kind of player who was eager to win big and is willing to bet big to make it happen.
Finally, there was Liara. Her play style was….well…
"Drat." she said. "I was hoping for something better on the lake."
"River." Kaidan, the game's dealer, corrected.
Liara was a poker newbie who actually had very little idea how to play the game. This was her very first game in fact. You'd think that would make her easy prey, but a novice can actually be dangerous under certain circumstances; particularly by making idiotic plays that no veteran in their right mind would make, which can make them hard to read at times. If Liara had a single strength, it was her unpredictability. She was the wild card.
The flop was complete, no more cards left to deal. A queen, jack, ten, seven, and a three. All spades. Everyone was guaranteed a flush, which meant that whoever won depended on who had the bigger hand. N'tho folded. The squidhead probably didn't have any spade cards and had ridden the flop all the way to the river in the vain hope of salvaging his hand. Wrex and Garrus were more sensible as always; they folded on the flop a while ago, knowing that three cards of the same suit on the table was dangerous if you didn't have any cards in that suit. It was now down to Ashley and Liara.
The marine checked her hand as she took a swig of her root beer. A pair of tens, which meant that she had a three of a kind plus flush. She felt good about those odds, but resisted the urge to smirk or raise her eyebrow. She looked at Liara, who was staring at the flop; studying it as though it were a series of Prothean hieroglyphics. "You in or out, T'soni?" Ashley asked.
"Er…." Liara was unsure of what to do. "I shouldn't….."
"Come on, Asari." Wrex prodded. "You're already in this deep. The Human didn't even make that big a bet. You could call it easy."
"Well…..alright then." Liara said as she pushed some chips into the pot.
"Alright ladies, let's see those cards." Kaidan said. Ashley flipped her cards over to reveal her tens. Liara flipped her cards which were….
An ace and a king. Both of spades.
"….Are you foxtrotting kidding me?" Ashley said after a second or two of stunned silence. "The FNG got a royal flush on her first game?"
"Well, it is a game of chance, gunnery chief." Kaidan said as he pushed the chips over to Liara, who was similarly stunned if only by just how much she won. "These things happen."
"You literally have a 0.0015% of getting a royal flush, LT!" Ashley ranted. "And Liara got that in her very first game. There's a chance, and then there's the universe itself conspiring against you for its own twisted amusement!"
Before Ashley could rant further, the elevator door slowly hissed open. Everyone turned and saw the Master Chief enter the garage with no armor, just his overalls. The door slowly shut behind him as he approached. "Oh. Hey Chief." Ashley greeted casually. "Where've you been? Haven't seen you all day."
"Mostly in my quarters." Chief replied. "Eventually got bored and thought I'd check and see what was going on down here."
"Texas hold 'em again." Ashley replied as Kaidan took all the cards on the table and shuffled a new deck. "It's my personal favorite variation. You want next game?"
"Sure." Chief replied. He walked over to another crate and pulled it over to the 'table,' a series of crates arranged to accommodate a large game of poker whenever off-duty servicemen needed something to do. He took a seat between Ashley and Garrus, and accepted a bottle of root beer offered to him by Kaidan. Not long afterwards, a seventh figure emerged from the corridor on the right that led to the engineering room. "Tali." Chief greeted with a nod.
"Hey there, Tali." Ashley also greeted.
"Oh. Hey guys." Tali said as she walked up to the group. "I just finished my first shift of the day, so I've got an hour or two to kill." she added as she pointed her thumb over her shoulder.
"I'll scootch over." Ashley offered. "You can sit between me and Liara."
"Pardon?" Tali asked.
"They're playing poker." Chief explained. "I'll be joining them next game. So can you."
"But….I don't know how to play." she said.
"I can teach ya." Ashley replied.
"Well…..alright." Tali said as she took the seat offered to her.
"Kaidan? You got any more bottles of that dextro stuff?" Ashley asked.
"Yeah." the biotic replied as he finished dealing the players new hands. He then reached down to the ice box by his feet and whipped out a bottle. Ashley opened her hand and Kaidan tossed it over. The marine handed the bottle to Tali.
"Here you go." she said. Tali examined the bottle, shrugged, then opened a port in her suit on her arm and poured some of the dextro root beer inside.
"You know, we really only brought enough dextro root beer for me. I didn't know that Tali would be joining us." Garrus pointed out. "So someone's gonna have to head back up to the galley to get more soon."
"We're running low on levo, too." Kaidan noted as he looked in the ice box by his feet. "Okay. First person to bust out this game has to go on a drink run."
"So Chief, where's Cortana?" Ashley asked as Kaidan dealt the flop.
The Master Chief's omni-tool appeared, glowed a sky blue, and Cortana's image appeared. "Hey guys." she cheerfully said.
"Alright. The team's all here now." Ashley said.
"I usually spend most of my day on Chief's PC surfing the web, but I figured I'd join him on today's excursion beyond the office." Cortana explained. She turned towards Tali. "Hello Tali." she greeted. "I was hoping I'd get to talk to you today."
"…You don't say." Tali replied in as neutral a tone as she could manage.
"I'll be blunt; I detect some tension between you and I." Cortana began. "So I feel that, in the interest of team-building, we try to relieve some of that tension together. Now then let's start by getting it out in the open; what's your problem with me, exactly?"
"Besides the obvious?" Tali asked.
"Ah yes, the Geth thing. I figured." Cortana replied. "Given your people's history, a mistrust of AIs is understandable."
"Well, synthetic life drove my people from our home world and pushed us to the brink of extinction." Tali flatly stated. "So yeah. 'Understandable' is a good word."
"Oh suck it up, Quarian." Wrex said as he made a big bet. "The Turians pushed my people to the brink of extinction, but you don't hear me whining like a varren pup about having Garrus on the team. So far I've been able to resist the urge to crush his windpipe with my bare hands just fine."
"….'So far?'" Garrus asked. He folded his hand, then scooted his seat a bit further away from Wrex.
"Wrex has a point." Chief intervened. "Even if you two don't particularly like each other, you should at least learn to tolerate each other."
"I like Tali." Cortana stated.
"You do?" Tali asked.
"Hey, you really helped me out against Ustrina back on that brute ship." Cortana explained. "You're okay by me."
"Oh." Tali said, apparently not expecting to be liked by an AI. "Well…..I can't honestly say I feel the same way. And not just because you're an AI."
"Oh? Do tell." Cortana invited.
"Well…..since we're being honest, you're kind of bossy." Tali said.
"…..Bossy?" Cortana asked, confused.
"Last mission, you were the one giving orders half the time, not the Chief." Tali elaborated.
"I am not bossy!" Cortana indignantly replied. She wheeled towards the Master Chief. "Chief. Am I bossy?"
"Well I didn't want to say anything but…..yeah….Tali's actually right." Chief replied. "You can be a little bossy sometimes."
"I'm not bossy!" Cortana replied.
"You were telling us what to do an awful lot yesterday." Ashley said as she saw Wrex's bet and raised it.
"I wasn't telling anyone what to do." Cortana insisted. "I was simply making tactical observations and giving tactical advice. It's what I was programmed to do."
"Were you also programmed to point out the obvious?" Wrex said as he went all in, making Ashley's face lose a bit of color. "Cuz you kinda do that a lot, too."
"…..John, your team is conspiring against me." Cortana told the Spartan. "Discipline them."
"There you go, being bossy again…." Tali pointed out.
"I am not bossy." Cortana hissed at the Quarian.
Tuning out Cortana's objections, Ashley went all in just as Wrex did; out of courage or stupidity, she wasn't really sure. Probably stupidity. The two of them revealed their hands. Wrex had a full house; three tens and a pair of queens. Ashley…..
"A pair of fives?" N'tho asked. "Who goes all in on a pair of fives?"
"Someone who needs to work on her bluffing skills, apparently." Ashley wistfully said.
"So Williams; what have we learned today?" Wrex said as he hauled in all the chips from the middle of the table.
"Never go all in against a Krogan?" Ashley guessed. Wrex smiled and nodded. "Of course. I'll go get more drinks."
After a few minutes, Ashley returned with the ice box, newly filled with root beers both levo and dextro amino acid-based. The rest of the game went by fairly quickly as Ashley taught Tali the finer points of poker. She still wasn't an expert by the time the next game started, but at least she actually knew how to play now.
Kaidan handed another root beer to Wrex, who took it eagerly and pried the cap off the bottle with his teeth. "What brand did you say this was, Alenko?" he asked.
"Cobalt Stripe." Kaidan replied.
"Good stuff. Just wish it made me drunk." Wrex said as Kaidan dealt everyone their hands, Tali and Chief now in the game. "Next port we head into, I'm gonna order some ryncol to pour into this stuff."
"Yeah, it really does suck that the Alliance doesn't allow alcohol on ships." Ashley said as Kaidan dealt the flop. "Then it would be a real Saint Patrick's Day. You sure Joker doesn't have some booze smuggled away somewhere LT?"
"Checked with him, and sadly no." Kaidan said.
"Makes sense." Ashley sighed wistfully. "Turians funded the Normandy's construction too, and they'd throw a fit if they found out that Humans were trying to smuggle booze aboard. They're really anal retentive about that kind of thing." She paused, then turned to Garrus. "No offense."
"None taken. Mostly because you're actually right on that one." Garrus replied. "When I was in the army, one thing my CO liked to do whenever he caught someone on duty with a bottle of booze is take that bottle and break it over his head."
"Yeesh." Ashley replied.
"Well, a bottle over the head doesn't really do any lasting damage, mind you." Garrus said. He then wrapped a knuckle on his own skull. "For obvious reasons. Still, it usually got the point across."
"That's nothing." N'tho said. "In the Empire, intoxication on duty is punishable by branding."
"Branding?" Ashley asked.
"Oh, that's when a Sangheili gets stripped naked and - "
"Never mind!" Ashley snapped. "Suddenly not curious anymore."
"What is Saint Patrick's Day, anyway?" Tali asked. "I've heard some the other engineers talking about it earlier."
"It's a day of cultural reflection in Human society." N'tho began. "It's mostly a day for Humans with ancestry in the nation of Ireland to recognize their history. Named in honor of Saint Patrick, a religious figure most well-known for driving snakes out of Ireland according to folklore. In reality though, what he really drove out of Ireland were pagans and druids in the name of christianity."
"….Sooooo…..it's a holiday about religious persecution." Tali said. "And the Humans celebrate it by….?"
"Drinking alcohol, mostly." N'tho replied.
"….Humans are weird." Tali said.
"I know. Cool, right?" N'tho asked.
"Obviously, the holiday's meaning has evolved over the centuries." Kaidan said. "Nowadays, it's mostly about Irish-descended Humans pausing to remember where they came from."
"And given how Ireland's primary export was people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, pretty much half of the entire Human population across the galaxy has at least one drop of Irish blood in them." Ashley explained further. "Hell, even me."
"Really?" Kaidan asked. "Thought you were mostly hispanic."
"I am, but I'm genetically one sixteenth Irish on my father's side." Ashley replied. "'Williams' isn't exactly a common surname in Central and South America, so there you go."
"Are we gonna play or what?" Wrex suddenly demanded. "While you were all yammering, Alenko just flipped the turn and I've been waiting on Williams to make a move."
"Oh. Sorry." Ashley said as she checked her hand again as well as the community cards. She shook her head. "Fold." she said as she pushed her hand away. She then turned to the Chief. "So, what have you been doing in your quarters all day?" she asked.
Chief paused, unsure if he should tell them the truth or not. "…You guys heard of the Ghost of Elysium, right."
"Sure." Ashley said. Kaidan and N'tho nodded. But everyone else shrugged. "The Ghost of Elysium is said to be a mysterious figure who helped colonists hold the line in the Skyllian Blitz until Alliance reinforcements arrived. Some say that he was actually a Spartan." Ashley explained for everyone's benefit.
"And before anyone asks, no, the Ghost wasn't me." Chief said to preemptively answer the question.
"But Horridus was pretty convinced you were." Kaidan pointed out.
"Mistaken identity on his part." Chief replied. "But….it did get me wondering if there are other Spartans out there."
"There are rumors that ONI revived the Spartan program in secret in the last few years." Kaidan said. "But those are just rumors. Nothing to really back them up."
"Same can be said of Chief's vision." N'tho pointed out.
"Basically, I spent most of the day researching the Ghost, as well as other rumored Spartan sightings." Chief confessed. "Even invoked Spectre privilege to make a few calls to people who might've known something."
"Why?" Ashley asked.
"Last Spartan, remember?" Chief replied.
"Chief, even if you did find these new Spartans, which is unlikely to say the least, they're not - "
"The Spartans I knew in my day, yes Ashley. You're not telling me anything that Cortana hasn't already told me." Chief said.
"But….." Cortana prompted.
"…But Cortana also helped remind me that I didn't needto look for other Spartans." Chief said.
"And why is that?" Liara asked.
"Because I've got all of you." Chief said. "You're my team. You're all good enough."
"…..Please tell me you're not going to try to hug any of us." Garrus said.
"Yeah. Don't go female on us now." Wrex added with an accusing finger.
Ashley then cleared her throat. Along with Tali. And Cortana. After a moment of silence, they all turned to Liara. "What?" the Asari asked.
"Looking for sisterhood, here." Cortana said.
"Oh." Liara replied. She paused in thought. "Well, you see, I am an Asari, which is a mono-gendered species. So technically I'm not male or female."
"You just don't want to get into an argument against the big scary Krogan." Ashley accused.
"Okay so the Master Chief learned a valuable lesson about friendship and family, blah blah blah, can we get back to the game now?" N'tho said as he threw in some of his chips.
"Smartest thing to ever come out of your mouth, squidhead." Wrex replied as he called his bet.
"Well, I think we should all thank John for sharing his innermost thoughts with us, especially because sharing his feelings is hard for him and is a sign that he trusts all of you." Cortana pointed out.
"Yeah yeah." Garrus said as he folded.
"Well John, I'm proud of you for having the courage to confess - "
"Nobody cares anymore, Cortana." Chief said as he called N'tho's bet.
"…..Men." Cortana said with a roll of her eyes.
The game went on as each player was busted out, one by one. Eventually it all came down to N'tho, Garrus, Ashley, and the Master Chief. "So, did you guys know that we have a new lead on Saren?" Chief asked as he made a large bet.
"Yeah, I heard about it from Joker. Heading to Noveria." Ashley said as she folded, knowing better than to fight a SPARTAN-II. "Geth are poking around there and the Council wants us to find out why."
"Pretty much." Chief replied.
"Hey, we just fought brutes yesterday. Brutes." N'tho said as he raised. "After fighting those guys, fighting Geth will be like going on vacation."
"I have missed those stuttering noises they make." Garrus added as he folded. "Haven't heard them since Eletania."
"We'll win this time." Chief said. "After taking down a notorious pirate warlord, I'm feeling lucky."
With that, he went all in. Chief suspected that the only reason N'tho didn't blanch was because his scaly skin lacked pigment cells. But his widening eyes were enough of an indicator that he knew he was screwed. With a sigh, he folded. "Wort" was all he said. With a smirk, the Chief pulled in his winnings.
The Master Chief then held up his bottle. "A toast." he said. "To the Normandy, to Blue Team, and to the success of this campaign. May this boat never sink."
The rest of Blue Team held up their bottles in tribute. "To the campaign." they all said together as they clinked their bottles.
"So….you invoked Spectre privileges to make all those calls, huh?" Ashley said as Kaidan started shuffling a new deck. "Think you could use those same privileges to get some real booze on this ship?"
"….We'll see." John said.
Codex Entry (Humanity and the Systems Alliance): SPARTANS
It's been said that every sentient species has its elite, almost legendary class of warriors. The Asari have the Justicars. The Krogan have the Battlemasters. And at one time in history, Humanity had the Spartans.
First developed in the late 25th century, the Spartans were the result of a super-soldier program originally created to carry out covert operations in the outer colonies in an attempt by the UNSC to pacify rebellions in that region. Soon after first contact with the Covenant however, the Spartans found themselves redeployed against them, after the Covenant proved a far greater threat. Eventually, the UNSC made existence of the Spartans public in order to bolster morale in the face of a seemingly invincible enemy. After nearly thirty years of prolonged fighting, the war finally ended in Human victory, thanks to the efforts of John-117, the most legendary Spartan of them all.
The victory was a hollow one for the UNSC, however. While Humanity successfully averted extinction, much of their former empire was in ruins, most of their colonies having been glassed and their total species population reduced by billions. Even to this day, the overall Human population has yet to reach the all-time highs of the early 26th century and many Human worlds within the Forerunner Cluster remain at least partially glassed. With so much rebuilding to do, the UNSC terminated the Spartan program in order to divert more desperately-needed funding to reconstruction.
Since then, there have been no attempts made by the UNSC or its later incarnation the Human Systems Alliance to revive the Spartan program. However, this has not stopped the general public from speculating that, perhaps, the Alliance restarted a new Spartan program in secret, and that the new 27th century Spartans carry out covert operations in politically unstable areas of the galaxy such as the Skyllian Verge, the Krogan DMZ, and the Terminus Systems. Reported sightings of Spartans are common, though most claims are questionable at best. As one Alliance PR spokesman wryly remarked; "The Spartans truly are legends now. Right up there with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster."