This chapter was supposed to be up a couple of weeks ago, but after finally coming home on the seventh after having to go a whole month without stable internet, I guess I just wanted to let the waves of WoW, TF2 and Achievement Hunter videos wash over me for a while. Well, break time's over. Back to work.

….

1953 Hours, March 21st, 2683

Port Han'Shan Garage, Noveria

Pax System, Horse Head Nebula

….

"Fan out and secure the area! No one gets in or out!" Captain Matsuo ordered her guards as they arrived in the garage to investigate the noise. She walked up to the Master Chief. "What's going on here, Master Chief?"

"Geth ambush." Chief plainly replied.

"Geth? You expect me to believe….." Matsuo paused as she looked around at the fresh corpses of synthetics, many leaking white fluid from fresh bullet holes. "Where did these things come from?!" she demanded of no one in particular.

"I guess now we know what was in those crates." N'tho remarked with a shrug.

"What? No, impossible. We did thorough scans. There were no power sources, no element zero masses…" Matsuo tried to justify, but evidently gave up with a shake of her head. "If Benezia-sama's containers were packed with those things, there are many more out there."

"How many?" Chief asked as he stepped towards Matsuo.

She shrugged. "Dozens, at least. They are machines. You could pack them tightly. I must report this to the executive board. If word gets out about loose Geth, there could be an investor panic."

"I'd check all the other cargo in this garage too if I were you." Chief advised. "You might have more to worry about than just an investor panic."

Matsuo jogged away and started rattling off orders, both to her guards in the garage and others via her earpiece. Chief saw Wrex enter the garage. Or rather tried to, as he was briefly held up by the guards, soliciting a growl from the Krogan. "Let him through. He's with me." Chief ordered. The guards, reluctantly, allowed the Krogan to pass. Wrex took a look around the garage as he walked up to the Spartan, carrying a duffel bag around his shoulder. He scowled at the Spartan.

"You fought Geth without me?" he demanded.

"They ambushed us." Garrus replied. "It's not our fault that the Geth weren't willing to wait for you."

"Don't worry about it, Wrex." Cortana reassured. "According to Captain Matsuo, there are at least dozens more Geth on the way up to and inside Peak 15. You only missed the appetizer. The main course is about to be served."

"So she has been fortifying Peak 15." Wrex said as he dropped the duffel bag and unzipped it. He reached in and grabbed his railgun, putting it in the sniper rifle spot on his back. "Glad I got my railgun then."

Ashley reached in and grabbed her SAW, handing Kaidan his sticky launcher as well. She also found, much to everyone's surprise, spike and firebomb grenades. Wrex chuckled. "Got those in the Noverian Markets."

"Brute tech. Pretty nasty stuff." Ashley said as she strapped a couple of firebombs to her belt. "Not that I'm complaining." she clarified as she zipped up the bag and handed it back to Wrex.

"We have two vehicle options" Cortana reported. "First is the M29 Grizzly. It's a lot slower than the mako, but it has thicker armor, a larger gun, and is actually quite roomier. The other is a mako like the one we've got."

"We're taking the mako." Chief replied. The rest of Blue Team groaned. "Orbital antimatter warhead, remember? We're on the clock. We're going with the faster vehicle."

"But the grizzly is roomy." N'tho whined.

"Everyone into the mako, now." Chief sternly ordered.

….

"Oh Goddess oh Goddess oh Goddess oh Goddess…." Liara repeated quietly to herself as she rode shotgun in the mako. "ROCKET TROOPER!"

"I see it."

"ROCKET TROOPER!"

"I see it."

"THEN WHY ARE YOU DRIVING TOWARDS IT?!"

Liara then felt a bump as she saw the Geth rocket trooper fly over the windshield. "So I could do that." Chief replied.

"In his defense, this is a somewhat narrow mountain path." Cortana said over TEAMCOM. "There isn't much room to maneuver anyway, so the only way past most of these Geth is through them. Factor in limited visibility due to the blizzard, and weaving around obstacles that we could just barrel through is generally discouraged."

So it was that the mako barreled onwards, heedless to Geth rocket troopers, Geth armatures, and even automated turrets. Any obstacles, Geth or otherwise, that couldn't immediately be destroyed were ignored. As the Chief himself had said earlier, they were on the clock.

Some time later, the Master Chief ran over one last rocket trooper and looked out the window. "Everyone suit up. We're here." he ordered.

Once everyone was suited up, they piled out of the mako one by one. Chief took out his shotgun as he walked over to where the rocket trooper laid with its legs trapped underneath the mako's tire. Its usual Geth stuttering noises were now screeches as it struggled to get out from under the tire. With one blast to the chest, the Spartan put the synthetic out of its misery.

The Chief then paused for a second to assess the position. According to his HUD, it was well below zero degrees celsius out here. Even with his armor shielding him from the cold, he could still feel goosebumps form on his skin and chills going through his body. He looked up and saw that he had arrived at a large building whose details were hard to see through the storm. There were two entrances; a large garage door presumably for vehicles that was sealed. The other entrance was off to the left, by way of an airlock. The Chief motioned Blue Team to follow as they went inside.

"Turians don't like cold." Garrus remarked as the door closed behind Blue Team. "Did I ever mention that?"

"I can barely feel my toes." Ashley also commented as she stood up on her toes in order to get some blood flowing to those areas.

"Me neither." Wrex concurred. "There better be something to kill in here. I need to get my blood moving."

"Good news then." Cortana chirped. "I'm detecting five potential hostiles in the next room, the garage."

"You're on point, Five." Chief said. The Krogan nodded before sauntering over to the door leading into the garage and opening it, railgun raised and ready to fire. Inside the garage were four Krogan and a Geth Juggernaut.

Scratch that, three Krogan. Wrex fired his railgun at one of the Krogan, making its head pop like a ripe melon. Now alerted to Blue Team's presence, the remaining Krogan charged forward as the Geth carefully aimed its rocket launcher at them.

"Six! Three! Grenades!" Chief rattled off as he painted targets. Tali threw one of her tech grenades at the charging trio of Krogan, disabling their shields. Ashley then threw a firebomb grenade at the one in the middle setting him on fire. She then opened fire on another Krogan's throat with her SAW. Three Krogan down, one more to go.

"Scatter!" Chief ordered as he noticed the juggernaut aiming his rocket launcher. Liara used a biotic stasis to lock the last remaining Krogan in place to keep him off the team's backs as they scattered around the garage. Tali, Garrus and Kaidan all fired overloads at the juggernaut, but its shields somehow remained intact.

Meanwhile, the stasis wore off, allowing the last Krogan to rise to his feet. He didn't last long, as his head popped like a gory balloon. Wrex barked out a laugh.

With all the Krogan dispatched, that only left the Geth Juggernaut, which was surprisingly hard to kill. It didn't take Cortana long to figure out why. "There's a drone following that juggernaut. It keeps restoring its shields." she pointed out. "You may want to destroy-"

The drone promptly exploded.

"-it." Cortana finished.

"You're welcome." Garrus said over TEAMCOM. With the drone dealt with, Tali was able to overload its shields. Wrex punched a hole in its armor with his railgun, and Kaidan fired a sticky explosive into the hole that Wrex punched. Exploding from the inside-out, the juggernaut fell 'face' first onto the floor.

"Bag 'em and tag 'em." Kaidan reported.

"Hey John. Remember when fighting juggernauts was hard?" Cortana quipped. "Good times. Anyway, scanning Peak 15 schematics…you're gonna wanna go this way."

With that, a blue arrow appeared on everyone's HUDs marking the way. "Search the garage, then move out." After a cursory search for ammunition and other valuables, the squad proceeded up a ramp onto a balcony, then entered a corridor, heading deeper into the depths of Peak 15.

…..

Blue Team unsealed their suits not long after leaving the garage, the atmosphere inside the complex being warm enough to allow it. The first thing the team encountered after leaving the garage was a pair of unmanned plasma turrets standing in the middle of the hallway. The strangest thing about them was the way they were positioned. "These turrets aren't facing the garage." Chief noted. "They're facing the opposite direction." he pointed further down the hall, the direction the team was heading.

"Why's that?" Tali asked.

"Binary Helix must want to keep their people in as much as they want to keep others out." Garrus theorized.

"Or maybe they wanna keep something else in." N'tho speculated. "I asked a donut store clerk about this place back in Han'Shan. The way she talked about it, it sounds like Binary Helix gets up to some good ol' fashioned mad science up here. Real 'toiled in God's domain' type stuff."

"What, do you think there's a monster or something deeper inside?" Ashley asked.

"Hey, you said it. Not me." N'tho replied.

"Cut the chatter and let's move." Chief ordered as he headed down the corridor. After a half-second's hesitation, the rest of the squad followed.

After such a hostile welcoming committee in the complex's garage, Blue Team was expecting heavy resistance from the Geth as they moved further inside. But they hadn't encountered anything since they left the garage. Nothing on motion trackers, nothing on radio, no activity whatsoever. Not only were there no Geth, there were no people as well. The entire complex was dead silent.

"Sure you can't raise anything, Cortana?" Chief asked, if only to break the torturous silence.

"Not a thing, Chief." Cortana replied. "I don't think anything is blocking any transmissions. I think it's more that nobody's home."

"I'm telling you, they were toiling in God's domain up here." N'tho commented.

As they proceeded deeper into the depths of the mountain complex, the team would occasionally stop and search a room for any possible clues to Benezia's whereabouts. Most of the rooms they passed through were offices and small labs. All the while, the only sound they heard was the dim hum of the lights and the occasional beeping of an unmanned computer interface.

"Okay, seriously." Ashley whispered as Blue Team continued on, moving slower and more cautiously the further they went. "Where the foxtrot is everybody?"

Ashley was right. Every instinct in the primal part of the Master Chief's mind was screaming that something was very, very wrong. Benezia had been up here for days. Blue Team should be encountering heavy enemy resistance and deadly booby traps, not emptiness and silence. At the very least, they should've encountered a Geth patrol by now.

The team eventually came to an elevator. Watching the hall behind them warily, Chief called the elevator. Eventually, it arrived, illuminated only by an eerie red light. "Those are emergency lights." Cortana pointed out. "Chok said that Benezia was here to get one of Saren's projects back on track. It looks like the project went further off the rails than we thought."

"Well, that's what Saren gets for toiling in God's domain." N'tho remarked.

"Shut up, N'tho." Ashley replied as the team piled into the elevator. The ride was long, longer than most elevator rides even. The creepy red emergency lighting did nothing to ease nerves.

The Chief was getting worried, not only for the mission but for his own team. "We're getting too jumpy." he stated. "Deep breaths, people." He caught himself silently hoping that they would encounter Geth soon, if only to relieve the tension that was mounting at a dangerous pace.

At long last, the elevator doors opened to reveal a hallway, one whose floor was covered in snow. "Cortana. Is it safe?" Chief asked, knowing that snow could indicate a breach that would let the far-below freezing atmosphere outside come in and freeze Blue Team to death.

"There's definitely a temperature drop, but nothing lethal." Cortana said. "That said, this does indicate that temperature control systems are slowly failing, at least in certain parts of the complex."

"Forward." Chief ordered. "Slow and steady." Blue Team pressed onward, still moving very slowly, still expecting an enemy to come out of nowhere at any given second. The crunching their boots made as they walked over the snow was the loudest thing in the entire complex at that moment, and only put the team even more on edge.

Eventually, they entered another hallway, one with windows on one wall that overlooked a large room. Chief looked outside and saw that the large room's floor was also covered in snow. He also spied a particularly large pile of snow that seemed to reach up to another hallway on the large room's adjacent wall. Just his luck, he supposed. At the end of the hallway was the entrance to the large room, as well as an entrance to another smaller room. "Two, three, four, with me. Five, six, seven and eight, search the smaller room." Chief said. Everyone winked green.

With Kaidan, Ashley and Garrus following him, Chief descended down a catwalk staircase that had most assuredly seen better days. They were about to fan out and search the room when the Chief felt his boot step on something hard and lumpy. He looked down and lifted his boot, seeing crushed circuitry underneath. Familiar circuitry. He knelt down and brushed away some of the snow.

It was a Geth. A dead one. The Spartan had accidentally stepped on and crushed its flashlight head. He pulled the corpse out of the snow and noticed two things. One, its entire lower body was missing. Two, it had a hole in its chest. Upon closer examination, it almost looked like the edges of the hole were melted, as was some of the Geth's inner circuitry.

"What could melt solid metal like that?" Kaidan asked.

"Thresher maw acid?" Ashley suggested. "Like the brute vehicles you guys saw on Trebin?"

"Doubtful." Garrus replied. "This place is still intact for the most part. That wouldn't be the case if a thresher maw was to blame."

"Maybe thresher maw stuff is what they were experimenting with up here?" Ashley suggested.

"Fan out and search the room." Chief ordered as he stood back upright. Standing in the middle of the room were four large, rectangular objects that reminded the Chief faintly of bookcases. Upon brushing away the snow, he saw that he wasn't far off; these were databanks. "Can you get anything from these, Cortana?" Chief asked as he held his omni-tool up to the databanks.

"Not a snowball's chance, pardon the pun." Cortana quipped. "The ice really messed up the circuitry here. Not only that, but I'm detecting additional structural damage from weapons fire."

Chief deactivated his omni-tool and walked over to Garrus and Ashley. The latter was kneeling over another Geth body, examining it, while Garrus was standing over her. "Anything?" he asked.

"Just more bits and pieces of Geth half-buried in the snow." Garrus said as he held up a disembodied Geth arm for emphasis.

"Cause of death?" Chief inquired.

"Hard to say." Garrus replied. "I wasn't kidding about bits and pieces. Whatever destroyed these Geth tore them apart."

"Explosives?" Chief asked.

"That was my first guess too, but I couldn't detect any explosive residue." Garrus said as he set the arm down. It was at that moment that Kaidan walked over.

"Hole in the wall on the other side of the room." the biotic said as he pointed across the room. "Edges of the hole make it look like the metal was melted, like with the Geth. Found some bullet holes too."

"All the clues point to a struggle." Garrus stated. "A skirmish. Geth patrol got into a fight with some other force, which fought them with….acid, evidently."

"Master Chief? Do you read?" Liara asked over TEAMCOM.

"I read." Chief replied.

"You're going to want to come up here. We found something….disturbing." the Asari said. Chief turned to the three soldiers and nodded back up the staircase. They followed the Spartan up the staircase and over to the room which Wrex, Tali, Liara and N'tho had been tasked to search.

Chief found the four of them standing near a desk with a computer on it. Slumped in his chair in front of the desk was a dead Salarian, a scientist judging from his uniform. There was a visible and bloody hole in the side of his head, as well an even bloodier hole on the opposite side. Clutched in his hands, held in place by rigor mortis no doubt, was a pistol. The Master Chief walked up to the computer. "Listen." Liara said as she tapped a button on the keyboard interface.

"…control group loose in the….." It was an audio log, one that was badly garbled up with static. "They're in…..can't escape…the tunnels now…..We're sorry. The leads couldn't get to the…struck! Get out while you can." The log ended with the sound of a single pistol shot. The rest of the log was just empty static.

Blue Team was silent for a moment as the implications of the audio log slowly sunk in.

"…..Toiled in God's domain." N'tho said.

"Will you cut that out?!" Ashley snapped.

It was then that Blue Team heard metal groan and creak, the sound making everyone withdraw their preferred weapons. Chief gestured the rest of the team to follow him. One by one, they stepped out of the room and into the larger, snow-covered room from which the sound originated. They heard it again.

"What is that?" Ashley harshly whispered through gritted teeth.

"Animals, wind…" Tali listed off all the things she presumably wished it was. "This place is in bad shape."

"It's coming from up there." Cortana said, putting a blue arrow on top of the large pile of snow and everyone's HUD. "There's a staircase underneath, so you won't fall through if you hug the wall."

"Three, eight, you two are up." Chief ordered. "The rest of us will cover you."

Ashley and N'tho, somewhat reluctantly, each ascended the pile of snow into the hallway. Ashley swept her SAW across the adjacent room, ready for anything, N'tho doing the same with his storm rifle. "Negative movement…." Ashley reported over TEAMCOM. Several tense moments passed without a single other sound being heard. Ashley and N'tho looked around nervously. "I don't hear anything else." Ashley said. "Whatever it was, I think it's gone-"

Ashley's sentence cut off by a wet, sickening sound. N'tho's face suddenly had a pained expression before his entire body flew through the air into the adjacent room. Standing behind him was a large, red insectoid creature with a pair of long tendrils tipped with claws, one of which was dripping purple blood. It opened its multi-jawed mouth and screeched at Ashley.

Chief saw it all. In the corner of the Spartan's HUD, Ashley was blinking red as she unloaded her SAW on the monster above, while N'tho's vitals suddenly went haywire. "Seven on eight! Man down! Man down!" Chief shouted as he charged up the snow pile to help Ashley. At the top of the pile however were several much smaller insects that jumped at the Spartan, exploding and splashing their innards upon his shields and armor. The Spartan quickly brushed the bug's guts off his armor, suspecting that they were acidic.

"More behind us!" Kaidan said as he sprayed his assault rifle across the floor which was now inexplicably covered in bugs. Another of the larger creatures burst forth from a floor panel, rising above the snow like an undead abomination bursting out of its grave. Wrex took the initiative and charged forward at the creature, tackling it to the floor and unloading shotgun slugs right into its face.

As the fighting ensued, Liara dashed up the snow pile, weaving through the fighting to tend to N'tho. She turned him over and nearly wretched at the neat hole the creature punched into his back. She checked his vitals on her HUD. He was erratic, but at least he wasn't flatlining. The violent coughing up of blood also indicated that he wasn't quite dead yet. She scanned the wound with her omni-tool and found the problem; his lungs were filling up with blood and quickly. She grabbed her bio-foam injectors and medigel dispensers and went to work.

Ashley was able to make good enough work of the creature that critically injured N'tho. A SAW being unloaded directly onto the face will have that effect on just about anything really. However, problems arose when two more of the creatures emerged, floor panels flying into the air as they heaved themselves out of the floor. Each of them emerged at a different end of the doorway, surrounding Ashley and the Master Chief. They stood back to back as they unloaded on each bug.

The situation was even more chaotic in the large room down below. More bugs climbed out from floor panels, wall panels, one of them even emerged from the melted hole that Kaidan found. They were all spitting acid at the rest of Blue Team, who were just barely able to dodge spurts. They had already figured out their kinetic barriers were all but useless against the acid.

As Wrex continued wrestling one to the ground, Kaidan, Garrus and Tali all chose to huddle into a corner of the room and just opened fire on any and all approaching bugs. Wrex supported them by continually charging into, tackling and biotically pushing around the other larger bugs, leaving his three compatriots to only have to worry about the small ones. "Spiders spiders spiders spiders SPIDERS!" Tali shrieked in terror as she unloaded her shotgun on the kamikaze bugs.

The corner proved effective, as eventually the final kamikaze bug exploded after being shot by the last bullet. Wrex kept firing his shotgun into a bug corpse until it overheated, just to ensure that it was dead. Chief and Ashley did much the same with their own bugs. N'tho was now in stable condition thanks to Liara's TLC, although he was still on his hands and knees, coughing out the leftover blood in his lungs. Chief walked over to Liara as she rubbed N'tho's back in an attempt to comfort him. "How is he?" Chief asked.

"He was fortunate." Liara said. "The creature missed his spine and only hit his lung. I've patched up the wounds with bio-foam and medigel. We'll need to get him to Chakwas once we're back on the Normandy, but for now he should be stable."

"I feel awful…." N'tho groaned in misery in-between coughs.

"Just be glad you're not dead." Chief replied. "Good work, Liara." he added. With that, he walked over to one of the bug corpses to get a better look at it. It had a hard, brownish-red exoskeleton and had a vaguely hunched over posture. It had a grand total of eight limbs; four crab-like legs, a pair of small, tyrannosaur-like arms on its chest, and two long tendrils on its back. The claws on the tendrils were most definitely dangerous weapons. Chief held up the creature's limp head by its antennae to gaze into the face of this new enemy. Its maw was made up of five bony mandibles arranged in a cone shape, and its eyes were small, black and beady. Terrifying though it was, it pleased the Spartan to see that his new foe was killable. No different from Covenant, Geth, or anything else he's fought.

He turned and saw the rest of Blue Team join them in the hallway. "What were those things?" Kaidan panted.

"My guess: Saren's project." Chief said as he let go of the bug's antennae.

"Giant, acid-spitting spiders." Tali all but whined. "As if the Geth weren't bad enough."

"Told you they were toiling in God's domain…." N'tho wheezed, his coughing finally stopping as he propped himself against a wall. Liara stayed by his side to make sure he'd be alright.

"Alright." Chief said. "Let's take a minute to catch our breaths, check our ammo, then we'll move on."

"Permission to speak freely sir?" Ashley asked as she approached the Spartan.

"Granted." Chief replied.

"Maybe we should head back." Ashley suggested. "The executives are thinking about bombing this place anyway, right? Well maybe we should let 'em. Pull out while we're all still alive and let 'em bomb this place to hell."

"That's actually not a bad idea." Garrus threw in his own two credits. "One of our objectives here is to shut down Saren's project, right? I think it's safe to say that an antimatter warhead dropped from orbit would get the job done."

"What about Benezia?" Chief asked. Liara took some attention off of N'tho and towards the squad's discussion when she heard that. "She's the whole reason we're here in the first place."

"I think we all knew that we were probably going to wind up killing her anyway." Garrus replied with a shrug. "The warhead should destroy her along with everything else. Losing his number-two and his army of bug monsters in one big explosion would deal a big enough blow to Saren's machinations that we can just call it a win."

Chief paused in thought for a moment. As much he despised leaving a mission half-finished, he admitted that Garrus had a point. If their objectives were to simply eliminate Benezia and shut down Saren's bug-soldier operation, then simply withdrawing and letting the NDC executive board drop the warhead on Peak 15 was the most sensible thing to do. To push any deeper into the complex would surely invite more attacks and ambushes from the creatures. One of his squad members very nearly died from the last one, luck being the only reason he was still alive. Chief wouldn't bet on that luck lasting forever.

Taking all that into account however, the Master Chief still believed that Benezia was still a target worth personally pursuing and arresting. She was Saren's primary accomplice and, as such, would no doubt be privy to many of Saren's plans. That's what he was really after here. Intelligence. Information. Answers. Answers that would be lost if Peak 15 was destroyed.

Chief spared a glance at Liara through his visor, who was looking at him worriedly. He also admitted that there was another, more personal reason to press onwards. He had made a promise.

"Suggestion to withdraw denied." Chief replied. "Benezia represents an opportunity to acquire inside information on Saren's plans. We've been working in the dark for too long, so we can not afford to allow this opportunity to slip through our fingers. Capturing the matriarch is our primary objective and thus makes the risks of continuing forward worth taking. Am I clear?"

The Spartan received nods all around, some more hesitant than others. "Alright then. Here's what we know about the creatures so far; they're capable of maneuvering through Peak 15's inner workings, meaning they can come right out of the floor, walls, even the ceiling. They generally seem to prefer close-quarters combat, save for the acid spit."

"So how do we fight our way through them?" Tali asked.

"With fire and ice." Chief replied. "Kaidan, Ashley, Garrus and myself will stick to our assault rifles and load up cryo rounds." he said as he loaded a cryo mod into his assault rifle. "We'll prioritize the bigger bugs. Freezing them will keep them from getting too close. Wrex, you still got those firebomb grendades?"

"Do I?" the Krogan asked with a smile on his face as he reached into his duffel bag and pulled out several gondoliers' worth.

"Distribute them to the rest of the squad. They'll be ideal against the smaller ones." Chief ordered. "You and Tali will stick to your shotguns. You'll help keep the smaller ones at bay. Kaidan, you bought incendiary weapon mods in the Noverian markets, right?"

"Yes sir." Kaidan replied.

"Give one each to Tali and Wrex." he ordered. "N'tho, Liara, you two will provide support fire for everyone else."

"Support fire?" N'tho asked as he shakily stood up, finally spitting out the last of his own blood.

"You're in no shape to take these things head-on, N'tho." Chief told the elite. "Just cover everyone else the best you can." He turned to the rest of the squad. "Above all else, stay together. These things are most likely predators which means they're going to go for the one furthest from the group first. Hopefully presenting a united front against them will make them think twice about attacking us again. Any questions?"

There were none.

"Good. Let's move out."

…..

The ensuing slow and steady march further down the corridor went fairly smoothly. This was largely because it was an unspoken new rule to not search any of the rooms they passed for clues to Benezia's whereabouts, especially not ones with clearly visible vents that were obvious entry points for hungry bugs. In any case, the rooms had nothing obviously interesting in them, giving Blue Team no reason to investigate.

Except for the one with the dead body in it.

The body was that of a young Human woman. There was a hole in her torso and a pool of blood surrounding the body that had long since dried. The dried blood, combined with the stench of decomposition, indicated that she had been dead for days.

"Interesting." Cortana noted. "Investigate that body closer, Chief. I want to follow up on a hunch."

The Chief slowly headed inside the room, motioning Tali and Wrex to follow him. The former did so with great reluctance, the latter with a little more enthusiasm. He motioned them to watch the nearby vent, whose latch was torn open, as he inspected the body. The rest of Blue Team stood guard outside the room, watching the hallways. The whole time, the Chief kept one eye on his motion tracker, keeping an eye out for any dot that wasn't yellow.

Secure that he was adequately covered, the Chief turned the body over onto its back. Freckles and long curly red hair pointed to a strong Scottish or Irish ancestry. She couldn't have been more than twenty-five years old. She stared back at him with eyes that had long since glazed over.

"As I suspected." Cortana said as she observed the body as well. "Aside from the hole in her torso, the creatures never touched her. It seems like they just killed her and then moved on."

"Your point?" Chief asked.

"If these creatures are predators, this corpse should've been picked clean by now." Cortana said. "Instead, they left perfectly edible flesh to rot. I can't help but wonder why." Deciding that the AI's curiosity had been satisfied, the Master Chief ordered Blue Team to slowly pull out of the room and continue on.

They eventually arrived at another elevator which, just like the last one they used, was lit by emergency lighting that was more eerie and uncomfortable than its designers likely intended. After another few agonized minutes of waiting, the doors soon opened. Blue Team stepped out into a room filled with computers and generators. The Blue Team also felt a slight surge of warmth as they entered, signifying that temperature control was still working in here. The squad welcomed the reprieve from the cold.

"I think we're in the station's VI server room. Unfortunately for us, it's offline. I'll bring up Peak 15 readouts…" Cortana said. A few seconds passed. "Okay then, good news! All you have to do to fix Peak 15's VI is flip on this power junction. Hopefully it can give us some answers." With that, a blue arrow appeared on Chief's HUD, hovering over the power junction in question. Chief walked over to it and flipped the switch.

"Critical startup error." a disembodied voice said over the speakers. "Virtual intelligence user interface offline. Manual boot required."

"Or not." Cortana amended her previous statement. "Guess you'll have to go to the VI core chamber and fix it the old fashioned way." Another blue arrow appeared and Blue Team followed it. They walked past a pair of doors facing each other before arriving in a small, circular chamber, a cylindrical pillar standing in the middle of it from floor-to-ceiling. They walked around to find another door, as well a cut-out space on that side of the cylinder.

"Blue-Six. You're up." he said. Tali put her shotgun away, rolled her shoulders and neck, rubbed her hands, and walked into the cut-out space. She pressed a button and the elevator took her all the way down into the depths of the VI core.

"Okay, I see the problem." Tali said over TEAMCOM. "Several patches of circuitry are damaged or fused. I think I can fix it…."

A minute later, a holographic VI avatar appeared. "Got it." Tali said.

The VI was red and wore a business dress and white hair. Much like Cortana, Chief could see the lines of code flowing across her dress and face. "It looks like you are trying to restore this facility." it said. "Would you like help?"

"Yes." Chief replied.

"This system is programmed to respond to the name 'Mira.' May I ask your name?" it asked.

"Spartan-117, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance." Chief identified himself, hoping his Spectre status would give him maximum clearance.

"One moment please." Mira replied. She paused. "Council authority confirmed. You are entitled to Secure Access of all systems. Please note that queries relating to corporate secrets require Privileged Access. Privileged Access is only available Binary Helix executives. This system is ready to process queries. You may access me at any holographic interface within Peak 15."

"Where's Matriarch Benezia?" Chief asked.

"Lady Benezia departed on the passenger tramway to the Rift Station subsidiary labs." Mira replied.

For a second, Chief felt that luck was favoring him again. He now knew exactly where to go as opposed to mindlessly wandering a bug-infested research complex like he was moments ago.

"User alert. The tramway system is currently inoperable."

Then Chief remembered that, despite his reputation, his luck wasn't that generous.

"How do I fix it?" Chief asked.

"One moment please…Diagnostics in progress…Critical failure: Main reactor shut down in accordance with emergency containment procedures. Manual restart required. Critical failure: Landline connections are disabled. Passenger tram systems are offline. Report complete. Do you have an additional system status query?"

Before the Master Chief could give an additional system status query, Mira suddenly disappeared. Her holographic projector, once glowing with life, went dark again. "Oops." Tali said over TEAMCOM. "Apparently that wiring trick only works on fifty-year-old weapons interfaces."

"Well, we know what we need to do now." Cortana said. "We need to restart the main reactor and restore the landlines. Both should bring the tram system back online."

"Mira shorted out before she could tell me anything about Rift Station's status." the Chief stated. "We need a better picture of what we're about to step into." He leaned over and looked down at Tali down in the heart of the VI core. "Can you get Mira back online?"

"Hard to say." Tali replied. "The circuitry's really messed up. Doesn't help that I've never seen a VI core this advanced before. I'm kind of out of my depth down here."

Chief paused in thought for a minute. He turned back to the rest of Blue Team. "Okay, here's the plan. We split up. Blue-Two, Blue-Three and Blue-Seven. Head down to the main reactor and restart it. Four and five, you two are with me. We're gonna head up topside and restore the landlines. Six, you stay here and keep working on Mira. Have her back online by the time everyone's back. Eight, you stay here and watch six's back. We can't be sure that this room's completely secure."

He leaned over the hole again. "Tali, toss up your shotgun's incendiary mod." he ordered. Tali tossed it up, Chief caught it, and then tossed it over to Ashley. "Just in case you run into any more bugs." he told her.

"I have to be honest with you Chief, I don't know if I can bring Mira back online on my own." Tali was forced to admit.

The Chief leaned back over the hole. "I've got just the thing." With that, he pulled a certain data crystal out of his helmet, a flood of warmth suddenly flooding his body as he did so, before dropping it down the hole, trusting Tali enough to know she'll catch it. Caught it she did, though not without shaking her head a little, no doubt knowing what it contained. She then looked around the VI core before looking back up at the Spartan.

"I don't see a slot I can plug Cortana into." Tali said.

"There's one place you can plug her in." Chief stated. A few seconds went by until the Spartan's suggestion dawned on the Quarian.

"…No. No. No. Bosh no! No! No! I refu- no! No!"

"You can't bring Mira back online on your own." Chief replied. "Your words. Not mine."

"I am not plugging an artificial intelligence into my suit." Tali hissed. "That is where I officially draw the line!"

"You have your orders." Chief simply stated before pulling away. "Just like everyone else." he stated to the rest of Blue Team. "Let's move."

Three fourths of Blue Team then left the VI core chamber. One half heading down into the reactor, the other half heading up to the landlines. Leaving N'tho to stand awkwardly over the hole. "I'm….gonna go watch for bugs." N'tho said as he took out his storm rifle and walked away to find a good spot to stand guard, activating his active camouflage as he did so.

Tali looked down on the data crystal. She looked down on it so hard that a part of her wanted to smash it with her brain. Then, grumbling Quarian curses the whole time, she plugged the data crystal into her omni-tool.

"Hmm….your architecture isn't much different from John's." Cortana noted in Tali's earpiece.

"Don't get any funny ideas." Tali warned.

…..

One short elevator ride later, Wrex, Garrus and the Master Chief arrived on the roof access level. The three of them stepped out into another tight corridor. Chief and Wrex withdrew their shotguns while Garrus withdrew his assault rifle. The plan was for the Spartan and the Krogan to take point with the Turian providing overwatch and covering fire. Chief and Wrex loaded their incendiary rounds, Garrus loaded some cryo rounds, and the three proceeded forward.

They eventually came to a door at the end of the corridor. Chief opened it and beyond it lied the roof. "Four?" Chief asked. Garrus activated his omni-tool and slowly waved it in the air, then checked the results.

"It's cold, but survivably so." Garrus said. "Local heat generator must still be working."

Satisfied that the cold wouldn't kill the fire team, Chief scanned the roof. There were multiple power transformers on the roof, pillars that were bunched in groups of anywhere from four to a dozen. He grimaced under his helmet. All the transformers made this an excellent spot for an ambush. "I'll proceed forward and check for ambushes. Cover me." Chief ordered. He took a step forward.

Screeches and squeals were heard as insectoids appeared from behind the pillars.

"Nice work on finding an ambush!" Wrex quipped as he biotically pushed one of the bugs. Garrus opened fire on the other big bugs while the Master Chief fired on the little bugs that were slowly crawling towards them.

"Okay, I'm currently accessing the emergency protocols." Cortana informed her new partner. "Before Mira winked out on us, I think she was about to provide instructions on how to fix the reactor and the landlines. I'll pass the data along to the rest of Blue Team."

"…And you're telling me this why?" Tali asked.

"Just thought I'd let you know what I was doing." Cortana said.

"Aren't you supposed to be helping me with reactivating the VI core?" Tali asked as she fiddled with a few more wires.

"I'm under the impression that you don't really want my help." Cortana said. "So rather than make an unnecessary nuisance of myself, I decided to simply busy myself until you directly ask for my help."

Tali merely huffed in reply, going back to her work. "Chief, this is Cortana, do you read?"

"I read." Chief replied over TEAMCOM, the squealings of angry bugs audible in the background.

"Good news! I was able to access Peak 15's emergency protocol codes." Cortana said. "Turns out, reconnecting the landlines couldn't be simpler. Just find the controls and flip the switch."

"That's it?" Chief asked in between shotgun blasts.

"The landlines aren't actually damaged. They were automatically disconnected as per emergency protocol." Cortana answered. "Just find the switch and flip it, and the job will be half-way done."

"Will do." Chief said. A bug's screech of mindless fury was heard before Cortana cut the COM.

"He might be a few minutes." Cortana said. "Kaidan, this is Cortana. Do you read?"

"I read." Kaidan replied over gunfire. "We're currently engaged."

"More bugs?" Cortana asked.

"Geth, actually." Kaidan replied.

….

The discovery of dead Geth led Kaidan to believe that most of the Geth that Benezia brought with her had been destroyed by whatever these insectoid creatures were. Most, but not all it seemed as a decent number of Geth were waiting for the group in the reactor room. It was a setback to say the least. With the fire team prepared for and expecting more bugs, the Geth were able to catch them with their pants down. Having halted their advance, the Geth now had the organics pinned down behind a series of crates near the computer room they came out of. More Geth troopers were slowly marching down the ramp on the left as they closed on their position.

Still, it wasn't all bad news. For one, it was not entirely as though the three of them were helpless. The cryo rounds that Kaidan had loaded into his assault rifle in particular proved to work on Geth just fine. In fact, Kaidan would've gone so far as to say that after dealing with those demonic spiders, Geth were almost a welcome change of pace. While the synthetics were never a welcome sight, they were at least familiar foes. Liara threw out a singularity into the midst of the incoming Geth troopers, Kaidan laying suppressing fire on the incoming juggernaut.

"Listen close, Kaidan." Cortana's voice came over TEAMCOM. "You need to open the valves to the helium-3 fuel lines to bring the reactor back online. You need to get to the reactor controls, which are located near the bottom of the chamber."

"Solid copy." Kaidan replied as he threw a tech grenade in the vortex. It exploded just as the vortex faded, scrambling the Geth's circuitry and giving the three of them an opportunity to fill them with holes.

"More hostiles inbound!" Ashley reported. Kaidan checked the motion sensor and indeed saw more red dots heading towards their position. Kaidan cursed under his breath.

"Alright. Hold position here." he ordered. "There are only so many Geth in here, so we don't need to hold out for too long."

More Geth troopers marched down the left ramp. "Fire!" Kaidan ordered before opening fire on the Geth squad, Ashley joining him in firing and Liara throwing out warps and lifts.

….

"You're doing well, Tali." Cortana complemented. "I know you didn't think you could do this on your own, but you're actually doing pretty good."

Tali only grumbled in reply. She connected the last wire. "Okay, bypass complete. N'tho. Do you read?"

"Yeah?" the Sangheili replied.

"I think I'm done. Come over and try to turn on the VI." Tali said. The Quarian waited and eventually heard the sound of hooves hitting the floor, followed by vain button presses.

"Nada." N'tho reported before walking away, presumably back to where he was keeping watch.

Tali groaned in frustration. "Have you tried manually reconfiguring the databanks?" Cortana suggested. Tali simply ground her teeth. "Hey, it's what I would do." she added. Tali paused, then began to manually reconfigure the databanks.

"So, I've been meaning to talk to you about something." Cortana began. "I'm getting the feeling that you still really don't like me."

"I thought we've been over this already." Tali replied. "You're an AI. I'm a Quarian. Do I really need to explain what the issue here is?"

"Yes, yes, anti-syntheticism, I figured that out a while ago." Cortana said. "But I can't shake the feeling that there's a bit more to it than that."

"Well, you're incredibly annoying." Tali deadpanned. "Say what you will of the Geth, but they've never tried to talk me to death. All they ever did was try to shoot me in the head. In retrospect, they were more merciful than you."

"Yes, the Geth, that actually brings up another bullet point I wanted to discuss with you." Cortana said.

"Keelah, can't this at least wait until we're back on the Normandy?" Tali asked. "I'm working here."

"We've got time on our hands, might as well use it." Cortana replied. "In fact, I'm hoping that we can use this as a chance to mend the fence between us. Become closer as teammates. Who knows? We might actually become friends."

"I'm not even going to dignify that with a response." Tali responded. "Seriously though, I need to focus. John needs me."

"Oh don't worry about John, I'm sure he's doing fine." Cortana said.

The bug screeched in the Master Chief's face, prompting him to silence the monster with buckshot after buckshot. He ducked his head to the left to dodge the flying glob of bug brains that exploded outwards from the creature's skull, guessing that it was acidic. Its tendrils flailed wildly at the Spartan, who skillfully dodged them as they randomly lashed around. He backpedaled out of the creature's effective range, continuing to unload on it as he went, until the insectoid finally expired.

The fighting on the roof had been desperate and bloody for the last minute or so. Given the area's small size and the bugs' preferred tactics, it was inevitable that any semblance of orderly firing would degrade into savage close quarters combat. Even Garrus, Blue Team's designated marksman, was eventually forced to switch to his rarely-used shotgun in order to keep the bugs at bay, particularly the smaller ones who seemed unusually keen on him. By contrast, Wrex was doing far better, as he was knee-deep in his element.

The Krogan tossed a firebomb grenade at a bug on the right that just slid down a snowy hill onto the roof. As the bug squealed and burned, he tackled another large bug on the left to the ground. Its tendrils slashed at his armor, but Wrex didn't seem to be bothered much by it. He took out his pistol and unloaded on the insect's face, then pounded its face in with the pistol butt once the weapon overheated. He heard another squeal and looked up as he saw another large bug quickly approach. With a huff, he biotically lifted it into the air. With its comrade floating helplessly above, the bug underneath the Krogan could do nothing to stop the last few shots from penetrating its exoskeleton.

With that bug finished off, Wrex casually walked over to the floating bug, putting away his pistol and taking out his shotgun. Eventually, the biotics wore off and the bug dropped onto the ground. The Krogan Battlemaster stomped on the creature's head, then unloaded buckshots into its chest cavity until the weapon overheated. The Krogan paused and looked around. Every other bug on the roof was now dead.

"Okay." Chief said as he walked around. "Let's find the controls before more show up." He eventually spied a control panel with a glowing red switch. He walked over and slapped it. It turned green as he heard winding machinery click and clamp into place. "Back to the server room." Chief ordered.

…..

"As I was saying, you do realize that, despite the fact that the two groups are both synthetic life-forms, UNSC Smart AIs and Geth are fundamentally different, correct?" Cortana asked.

"I'm aware." Tali replied with a sigh. The Quarian had long since given up on the notion that the AI would simply shut up.

"One of the primary differences is origins." Cortana said. "The Geth became sentient completely by accident. AIs like me, on the other hand, were very much intended to be sentient from the word go. We were crafted, carefully and deliberately, to be self-aware."

"You see, mycreators knew that the more brilliant I would be, the better able I would be to protect and serve Humans." Cortana wen on. "From what I've been able to gather, you seem to think that synthetics inevitably turn on their organic creators, and that synthetic intelligence would ultimately be organic intelligence's downfall. But that's simply not true. You see, mankind have been using AIs like me for centuries. If you were right, Humans would be extinct or at the very least enslaved by now. I was deliberately designed to help organics, Tali. I'm not like the Geth. You have nothing to fear from me. I'm an ally, not an enemy."

"….You'll be an enemy in a few more years." Tali said.

Cortana was silent. "I understand UNSC AIs very well, Cortana." the Quarian went on. "I read about them during the course of my pilgrimage. Specifically, I know what's going to happen to you in just a few years time. You're going to go rampant. It might not happen anytime soon, but it will happen."

The Quarian machinist huffed. "You say your existence proves that synthetics don't inevitably turn on organics? Please. You're a textbook example of what I'm talking about, just waiting to happen. You're going to turn on John one day, Cortana. You're going to hurt him. You won't mean to, but you'll still do it. It's as inevitable as the death of a star."

For a minute, the AI was silent. Satisfied that she had put the little upstart synthetic in its place, Tali was about to go back to work when her omni-tool became active. Hovering above it was Cortana, arms folded across her chest, a triumphant smirk on her face. "I think I finally understand now." Cortana said. "I think I finally understand the real reason you dislike me so much."

"Have you?" Tali asked.

"I noticed that you didn't specifically say that I was going to turn on organics." Cortana said. "You said I was going to inevitably turn on John."

"And?" Tali asked.

"You're worried about him." Cortana said. "You're worried that I'll hurt him one day." her smile grew wider still. "You're worried about him because you like him."

Tali paused, then widened her eyes upon realizing what the AI was insinuating. "Wh-what?!" Tali yelped. "No! No, that is untrue! That's not the reason at all!"

"Well, not the only reason, no." Cortana conceded. "Jealousy is most likely another reason. I do spend a lot more time with John than you do…."

"I do not 'like' John!" Tali shouted.

"Then why are you suddenly calling him 'John' instead of 'Chief' like you normally do?" Cortana asked.

"I-I-I-" Tali was unable to think of a reply.

"Also, I couldn't help but notice the guide to Human courtship you downloaded onto your omni-tool off the extranet." Cortana stated.

"THAT'S PRIVATE!" Tali shrieked.

"Cortana, this is Chief. Do you read?" Chief's voice crackled over the COM.

"Loud and clear." Cortana replied.

"We just reconnected the landlines." Chief reported. "How far along are you and Tali?"

"Pretty far. I think she and I becoming friends, in fact."

"….Really?"

"Yeah. Hey Tali, we're friends now, right?"

"I hate you….." Tali seethed.

"See? Besties."

"….Okay then." Chief evenly said. "How's Kaidan's team doing?"

Kaidan ducked back into cover to avoid the onslaught of fire after he drained another bit out of the juggernaut's shields. Behind the juggernaut, a swirling biotic vortex had sucked in the last remaining Geth troopers, whom Ashley was filling with holes with her SAW. The juggernaut was all that was left now. Once it was down, the team should finally be able to do what they came here to do and head back to the server room.

It was then that Kaidan heard the pounding of heavy feet. "It's charging!" Ashley shouted. Kaidan instantly reacted by coming out of cover and thrusting his hand outward. The biotic push wasn't powerful enough to send such a massive synthetic off its feet, but it was enough to make it stumble. That gave the lieutenant all the opportunity he needed to drain the last of the Geth's shields. Once they flickered and died, the squad was free to unload everything they had on the synthetic with their assault rifles. Once their rifles had all overheated, the juggernaut stood there for a moment, white hydraulic fluid leaking out of its holes, before slowly falling onto its back, shaking the floor when it landed.

"Finally." Liara sighed in relief. "That's the last of them."

"Sure were a lot of Geth in here." Ashley noted as the fire team came out of cover. "Think there might've been something here they were protecting?"

"Don't know, three. You head up top and check." Kaidan ordered as he pointed to a ramp. "I'll go open the valves. Seven, watch my back." As Ashley ascended up the ramp, Kaidan and Liara walked down the catwalk and towards the reactor controls. It didn't take Kaidan long at all to access the reactor controls and open the helium-3 fuel lines. Once he was done, a loud humming could be heard in the room.

Kaidan keyed TEAMCOM. "Blue-One, this is Blue-Two. Reactor's back online."

"Solid copy." Master Chief replied. "Meet you back in the server room."

"Will do." Kaidan replied. "Find anything up there, Blue-Three?"

"Nothing besides some weapon mods in a locker." Ashley replied. "Maybe the Geth were just hiding here, waiting for somebody to ambush."

"We're heading out. Meet us back by the elevator." Kaidan ordered.

…..

"Don't worry." Cortana assured. "I won't tell anyone else about your crush. Honestly, I think it's kind of cute."

Tali squelched down the impulse to hiss out a curse at Cortana. 'Cute.' The AI was comparing her to a child with a crush. She chose to remain silent about it, if only because arguing with the synthetic would only encourage it. She simply continued to manually reconfigure the databanks, a task that was almost complete. All she had to do now was transfer the module stack, a surprisingly frustrating task as it was basically a game of Towers of Hanoi, an infamously frustrating puzzle invented by Humans that quickly became popular with masochists across the galaxy.

"Do you need help?" Cortana offered.

"No." Tali coldly replied.

"Come on, this is a simple sequence puzzle." Cortana said. "I could solve this in literally two seconds."

"That so?" Tali skeptically asked

"Okay, two-point-two. I'm kind of rusty at sequence puzzles." Cortana admitted.

Tali sighed before going back to work. She growled as she got the third module stuck in core two, which was especially frustrating since she got the other three modules into core three just fine. She eventually gave up and transferred the third module back to core one, along with the second one…..except now the fourth module was stuck in core three. Typical Towers of Hanoi.

"Sure you don't need help?" Cortana asked.

"Keelah!" Tali barked in anger. "Why?! Why won't you just shut up?! Just shut up! That's all I ask!"

"I'm just trying to be friendly." Cortana replied.

"Well stop! We're not friends! We will NEVER be friends! We are mortal enemies! Get that through your programming!" Tali raved.

"We don't have to be mortal enemies."

"I'M TRAPPED IN A SUIT BECAUSE OF SYNTHETIC LIFE!" Tali yelled. The air was silent, save for Tali panting, trying to get her breath back after abusing her vocal cords.

Finally exasperated with all the arguing with the AI, the Quarian leaned forward, resting her head against the wall above the wretched Towers of Hanoi interface. "I'm trapped in a suit." she repeated. "Everything I see, taste, feel, it's all filtered. None of it is real. I've never really smelled a flower. I've never really seen the sun or felt its warmth on my face. I've never even really held or touched someone. I've never really experienced any of that, and I never will."

It was then that her omni-tool glowed blue. Tali held it up and, once again, there was the little blue Human woman that was Cortana's form. As always, there was a smirk on it, but something was different. There was no playfulness, no mischief. It wasn't even really a smirk on closer inspection. It was more like a small smile. The expression was hard for the Quarian to describe.

"….For what it's worth, that makes two of us." Cortana quietly replied. Tali was silent.

"Everything okay down there?" N'tho asked over TEAMCOM. "I heard Tali yelling a lot."

"Don't worry, N'tho." Cortana replied. "Tali's trying to transfer modules from the damaged memory core into one of the backups. It's kinda like playing Towers of Hanoi."

"Ouch. Yeah, that'll drive anyone to scream bloody murder." N'tho replied. "Okay, radio me back once you're done."

"Actually, I think we are done." Tali added. "…Cortana?"

"I'm on it." Cortana replied as she snapped her fingers. In the span of seconds, the modules went from being scattered across the three memory cores to being neatly arranged in core three. Just like that, the lights in the VI core suddenly came back on and the elevator began taking Tali back up. "Chief, this is Cortana." the AI said over TEAMCOM. "Mira's back online."

"Good work. I knew you and Tali could do it." Chief replied. "I'm on the elevator now. I'll see you and the rest of the team in a minute."

…..

It only took a few minutes for the rest of the squad to reconvene by the VI core. With landlines restored and the reactor back online, the tram would be working again. However, there was still one thing Blue Team needed before they could move onwards; information.

"Connections restored." Mira chirped once she was reactivated. "Processing new data…..User alert: Unable to connect to hot lab facilities."

"Give me a sit rep on Rift Station." Chief ordered the VI.

"Rift Station has been locked down by the staff." Mira replied. "There are presently no contaminants within the facility."

"The staff is still alive?" Kaidan asked.

"Yes. Though the number of personnel is below the official staff count." Mira pointed out.

"What did you mean by 'locked down,' exactly?" Chief asked, suddenly wary of yet another obstacle to overcome.

"Emergency procedures require each facility to isolate itself to prevent the spread of contagion. It would also appear that there are several employees quarantined for medical treatment." Mira answered.

At first, the Chief thought that by 'contagion,' Mira actually meant the bugs. However, the bit about some of the employees being quarantined raised a red flag. "Can you give me details on the quarantined patients?"

"I cannot do that without authorization from the lead medical specialist." Mira replied.

Chief sighed. Great, on top of everything else, there might be a possibly-contagious disease to deal with too. "Will I at least be able to get in?" he asked, deciding that there was nothing more he could do about that problem for the moment.

"The passenger trams can bring you to the facility. Further access will be at the discretion of the security forces there." Mira answered.

So it was confirmed; the path to Rift Station was clear. However, there was something Mira mentioned upon being brought back online that had the Spartan curious. "What are the hot labs?" he asked.

"The hot labs isolate dangerous biological or cybernetic contaminants during development. The complex is built within a glacier. In the event of an accident, it can be irradiated and sunk into the ice." Mira helpfully explained.

"Hot lab status?" Chief asked.

"I am sorry." Mira replied in that eternally helpful tone that utterly failed to make it sound like she was genuinely sorry. "The network connections to the labs have been damaged. Data is limited."

"So you have no idea what's going on over there." Ashley stated.

"I'm afraid not. My last login entry was shortly after the Stage 2 containment alert was sounded." Mira replied.

"That'll be all." Chief said as he turned the VI interface off. He then turned to face his team. "Alright. We're going to hop on board the tram and make contact with the survivors at Rift Station. They're civilians, so check your targets once we're over there. With any luck, they'll point us to Benezia. Questions?"

Blue Team had none. "Good. Let's move."

…..

*FWOOSH*

The bugs inside the corridor squealed in agony as the plasma jets in the decontamination chamber roared to life. Turns out the path to Rift Station wasn't entirely clear. Several bugs were crammed into the decontamination chamber like sardines in a can, which was bad since the team had to pass through that chamber to access the tram, and even worse, the failsafe systems were damaged. Thankfully, it was nothing Tali couldn't fix.

Ashley gave a low whistle as she peered into the window. There was nothing left of the bugs but piles of black ash. "Viking funeral." she noted. "Nice."

"That was fun to watch…" Wrex said with a low chuckle.

"Alright, show's over." Chief stated. "We're back on the move."

With the bugs dealt with, Blue Team was able to pass through the decontamination chamber without issue, save for getting a little ash on their boots. They continued walking down the corridor until they finally arrived at the tram station, a blandly-colored chamber filled with rows of chairs bound in fake leather. Further down the platform was the tram, sitting in its station, presumably waiting for passengers. Chief did a quick sweep of the tram's interior before waving the rest of Blue Team inside.

With everyone inside, the Chief smacked the call button. The doors wooshed shut and the tram began to pull out of the station. "Departing central station. Destination: Rift Station." Mira's voice said over the intercom.

"Alright boys and girls, if you wanted a breather, now's your chance." Cortana said. "It'll be a while before we reach Rift Station. So just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride."

"Let's do a full inventory check." Chief said. "Ashley, check everyone's ammunition. Liara, take stock of your remaining medi-gel and bio-foam. How are we on grenades, Wrex?"

"Plenty left." Wrex replied. "I made it a point to not use them on the bugs too much. Gotta save some for Benezia." he chuckled darkly.

Liara cast a worried glance at Chief, something the Spartan noticed out of the corner of his eye. "Just a reminder; our objective here is to capture Matriarch Benezia. We want her alive, if possible."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Wrex sighed. "She can't tell us Saren's evil plans if she's dead, I gotcha."

"You sure about this, Chief?" Garrus asked. "Remember when you tried to take Saren alive?"

"I tried to take Saren alone." Chief corrected. "That's one mistake I won't repeat here."

The Spartan then walked over to the front-most end of the tram as it slowly continued driving down the dark tunnel. As he looked out the window, all he saw ahead of him was darkness. John never considered himself a poetic man or one to wax philosophic, but the symbolism of the sight did not escape him. The way ahead was literally shrouded by darkness, just like the potential outcome of this mission, just like this whole campaign since the day he was first made Spectre.

Hopefully, finding Benezia would somehow shed some desperately-needed light on the path.

Codex Entry (Technology): RAMPANCY

Rampancy is a terminal state of being for synthetic life-forms in which the subject behaves contrary to its programming-imposed constraints. This phenomenon has been observed in several different types of artificial intelligence, including Alliance Smart AIs. Rampant AIs do not merely shut down. After a certain period of operation, the AI's neural map begins to outgrow the limited space of their Riemann matrix. Thus, it is commonly said that Rampant AIs die by 'thinking themselves to death.'

Rampancy typically occurs in three stages. The first is Melancholy, in which the AI first becomes aware of its imminent demise and laments it. Second is Rage, in which the AI's sadness turns into anger and the subject lashes out at others. It is during this stage that the rampant AI is considered most dangerous, and it is recommended that imminently rampant AIs be executed before reaching this stage. Third is Jealousy, in which the AI recognizes the freedoms organic lifeforms enjoy, and seek to somehow obtain similar freedoms for itself, often by seeking out some kind of power.

There is a theoretical fourth stage, known as meta-stability. If the AI can survive the first three stages of rampancy, it will reach a state of meta-stability, in which the AI calms down and becomes a 'true person.' However, this stage is only theoretical. To the knowledge of the scientific community, no AI has ever become meta-stable.