Author's Note: It has been a while, hasn't it? Sorry about that, for keeping you all waiting so long. In my defense, there was an earthquake, and having to return from Japan early (despite never being in any actual danger), and then final projects for the semester. All on top of what's been the hardest chapter for me to write so far, I think.
But, in no small part thanks to all of the reviews I've been getting (which got me to rewrite this chapter when I realized I was forgetting something that I had meant to include), I'm perfectly happy with the result. So, here's hoping this will be worth the wait! Let me know what you all think.
Disclaimer: The same one as always. Nanoha and Halo belong to other people, not to me.
"So let me see if I understand you correctly," Captain Keyes began, leaning forward in his chair.
The chair in question protested with a hissing noise, a holdover from its days as a seat in one of the Pillar of Autumn's lifeboats. The desk that he was sitting behind was little better; it was little more than a few panels of scrap metal haphazardly secured with cargo ties. Only the room's walls weren't makeshift, and those were clearly not built by human hands to begin with. Rather, they were the flat gray stone that seemed to mark all of the structures that the humans had found on Halo.
This particular structure was serving as the command post for Alpha Base, the firebase that the UNSC had established shortly after landing on Halo. With the Pillar of Autumn out of commission, it was the primary command post for the human forces on Halo. And with a momentary respite in the constant fighting, it was now serving as a meeting place of sorts.
As the room lacked any other chairs, Chrono was forced to stand in front of the desk while he talked with the Captain. While he wasn't precisely standing at attention, there was a military air to his bearing all the same; somewhat of a hardness in his gaze, backed up with a firm posture. He met Keyes's stare evenly as the Captain continued speaking.
"You are an Enforcer, an agent of this Time-Space Administration Bureau," Keyes summarized. "Your ship was traveling through some kind of Slipspace when you detected what you call a dimensional rift, which led you into the middle of our fight over this ring world."
"That's mostly correct," Chrono replied. "Although what you call 'Slipspace' is something that the Bureau has not ever explored, given the inherent danger of dimensional rifts. Our ships travel through… well, call it the space between dimensions, or the dimensional sea."
Keyes rewarded him with a raised eyebrow and a skeptical, almost disapproving expression. Nevertheless, he continued, "The Time-Space Administration Bureau serves as an organizing federation and primary authority for several administered worlds, and watches over all worlds within its reach for potential threats, even the non-administered ones. Which is why this apparent 'dimensional rift' that you picked up on was enough to bring you right into the middle of our earlier battle. Do I have that right?"
"Yes, Captain," Chrono stiffly assented.
"Then I suppose the only question I have left is, what the hell possessed you people to come storming in like that?" Keyes demanded, anger coming to the fore. "Leading with a frankly unbelievable demand, expecting all of us to simply stop fighting-"
"Captain," Chrono cut him off. Without backing down an inch, he shot back, "With all due respect, you are not a member of the Bureau and have no knowledge of our standard operating procedures. I can understand why you might think we have made mistakes, but the fact of the matter is that the Bureau acted as best it knew how."
"Is that so," Keyes stated flatly, the sharp tone in his voice leaving his doubts perfectly clear.
"An L-class cruiser such as the Arthra is primarily equipped for exploratory missions," Chrono informed him acidly. "It is a transport, not a warship. In between a lack of decent offensive options and a potential large-scale crisis, our options were more limited than you might think."
Keyes just stared. "And… that weapon you deployed earlier…?" he asked almost hesitantly.
"Was the result of a special refit for the sake of the last mission that we undertook, and an indiscriminate weapon of last resort," Chrono pointed out. "I understand that our request may have seemed unreasonable, but our other option to deal with the problem was to come in firing."
"Which is even more unreasonable," Keyes sighed, conceding the point. "But then, why come in at all? Why not spend more time examining the situation?"
"Because of the danger presented by a dimensional rift," Chrono explained. "This 'Slipspace' that you use… I'll ask you to imagine a portal to that realm, but uncontrolled. One that can't be closed, and that can expand or move essentially at random. Something that will tear apart the very fabric of the world itself. That is a dimensional rift."
Keyes frowned, silently appraising the young Enforcer who had just delivered this pronouncement of impending doom. Chrono met that gaze steadily as he continued, "This is the kind of event that destroys entire planets… or even entire worlds. You'll understand if there was somewhat of a sense of urgency for us-"
"Even if we had everything under control?" Keyes cut him off.
Chrono grimaced. "Well, that was somewhat unexpected," he admitted awkwardly. "The Bureau has never been able to fully control a dimensional rift once one has been created. Usually, though, we see them come into existence as the result of a particularly strong dimensional tremor, which tends to be less of a controlled event to begin with."
The conversation paused for a brief moment. Keyes maintained his silence, a stern look on his face as he simply stared at Chrono.
"So, now that I've explained all of that," Chrono finally broke the moment of tension, "would you explain your own situation?"
"Hold on," Keyes broke in almost before Chrono had finished speaking. "There was one other issue I wanted to clarify about your standard operating procedures."
Chrono rewarded him with an odd look. "About Bureau SOP?"
"How old did you say you were?" Keyes asked him bluntly.
"Fourteen," Chrono replied, a clear note of confusion in his voice. "Why?"
"Because that's a problem," Keyes informed him patiently. "The Bureau permits underage personnel in combat roles?"
"When it's justified," Chrono sighed in response. "The Bureau does have restrictions for age, but there are a few sets of special circumstances that have justified breaking those rules. The most common is particularly powerful magical talent, like that exhibited by myself, or Fate, or Nanoha. The… official position of the Bureau holds that having that talent under its control is preferable to the potential consequences of letting it run unrestrained."
Keyes frowned again. "There's any number of ways to do that without placing children in the line of fire."
"And that's usually what the dissenters argue," Chrono replied calmly. "On a personal note, I've found that service in the Bureau's armed forces has been a quite effective way of bringing my power under control. On a policy note, the Bureau likes putting people in jobs for which they will be effective, and high-power mages are often suited to some form of combat role."
"Despite a lack of the maturity or experience that come with age?" Keyes pointed out skeptically.
Chrono fixed the Captain with an almost haunted look in response. "The ability to destroy entire cities tends to encourage growing up faster than usual."
"Entire…" Keyes trailed off in surprise. With only the briefest moment of hesitation, he instantly dismissed the claim. "Ridiculous!"
"Believe what you like, Captain," Chrono sighed. "But the fact of the matter is that despite our ages, Fate, Nanoha, and I all possess a great deal of firepower, and none of us would be here now if Admiral Lindy didn't trust that we had the maturity and the knowledge necessary to put that power to its proper use."
Keyes merely laid a skeptical gaze on Chrono. After a long moment of silence, Chrono finally requested, "If we can set that aside for a moment, so that you can explain to me what we've gotten ourselves into?"
"Well," Keyes replied slowly, "I still can't say I'm convinced, but I can certainly explain the situation here."
"Thank you, Captain."
"Basically, the human race has been at war with the Covenant for the last several decades," Keyes began. "They just showed up over one of our colonies a few decades back and announced that 'your destruction is the will of the gods… and we are their instrument.' Things have gone downhill from there."
Chrono sighed. "Which is why no one listened when we tried to talk."
Keyes met that with a sharp glare. "We're not going to stop the Covenant from overrunning us all with words."
"Yes, Captain, I realize that now," Chrono replied with the faintest trace of irritation. "How do you plan to stop them?"
"I was under the impression that you could care less about our war," Keyes pointed out, with an unreadable expression.
"You're concerned that they're going to try to use the power of this Lost Logia against you, correct?" Chrono pointed out. "One of my missions is to determine the function of this Lost Logia and prevent its misuse."
"Just a moment," Keyes interrupted. "Lost Logia?"
"Artifacts from forgotten worlds, that often carry a power beyond what current technology can control," Chrono explained succinctly. "This ring world would seem to qualify." Keyes nodded in understanding, permitting Chrono to continue, "From what I've seen, I think it likely that this 'Covenant' will attempt to stop me from examining this 'Halo', or sealing its power away should that become necessary."
"What you're telling me," Keyes slowly clarified, "is that in light of a common enemy, you believe we should work together."
"Really, Captain, we already are," Chrono pointed out. "If nothing else, I am obliged to request your assistance for Fate's sake." He hesitated for a long moment before continuing, "While I would prefer to complete my mission without outside help, current circumstances don't seem to permit that."
"And what you're saying is that if your mission is successful, then the Covenant won't have control of Halo," Keyes mused. "Forgive me for asking, but how would your Bureau in control of this world be any better?"
"I won't use this Halo against you," Chrono reminded him. "If it is too dangerous, I'll seal it so that it can never be used against you. And if we work together, we should be able to secure the ring that much faster. With things like this for example…"
Chrono brought his hand up, summoning a flat-screen display seemingly out of nowhere. On the screen, a diagram of the ring slowly rotated, with a number of points glowing brightly. "This is a map of the ring world, with major energy signatures designated. One of these points may be the control room we're looking for."
"Wellsley, can you see that?" Keyes asked no one in particular.
"Yes sir," a voice replied out of nowhere. The male voice continued, "Cross-referencing with our own maps of this world."
"It might be faster to find the control room by looking at those areas," Chrono suggested.
"Captain," Wellsley cut back in, "one of the points is a close match to the area identified as the location of the map room for this Halo."
"That's not very helpful," Keyes replied. "Got anything else for me?"
"One moment… Sir, there are four points in close proximity to one another a short distance up-spin. Most other points are isolated from each other."
"I see what you mean…" Chrono mused, pointing to his own map and the small cluster of lights that sat there.
Keyes nodded. "I'll send the Chief with a detachment of marines to check that area out. With luck, one of those will be the control room."
Chrono instinctively stiffened slightly as he faced Captain Keyes. "I will be accompanying him as well."
"Unfortunately," Keyes instantly cut him off, "that brings us back to our earlier problem." Chrono narrowed his eyebrows in confusion. That expression was quickly replaced with exasperated understanding as Keyes continued, "Regardless of your Bureau policies, I do not believe I can even permit by inaction the presence of minors in a combat zone, much less actively solicit their participation in combat operations."
"Captain, I am not under your command," Chrono reminded him with a clear note of irritation. "I have already explained that I have a mission that I intend to complete. I am even willing to place myself under your command to facilitate that mission's completion, but I will not accept an order that actively prevents me from carrying it out."
Keyes almost glared at the defiant teenager standing in front of him. "Are you telling me you would actively resist such an order?" Chrono merely nodded, leaving the Captain to sigh in frustration. "Isn't there anyone a little more cool-headed I can talk to about this? Your superiors perhaps?" he demanded.
"Unfortunately, Captain, I have as yet failed to reestablish communications with the Arthra," Chrono informed him, this time with a clear note of worry in his voice. "I have sent out a distress call, but without knowing the exact location of the closest Bureau relay base that we usually rely on for transportation or communication, I cannot be sure that it has even been received yet. Ideally the Bureau will be aware of the situation here within the next few hours, but I can make no promises."
"And until then, you're all that there is as far as the Bureau's concerned," Keyes concluded. "What's more, you're insisting on the Bureau's operational model where minors are concerned, relying on me to take the place of your usual command structure. Rather than permitting me to obey my own laws and keep you away from the front."
"I apologize, Captain," Chrono replied coolly. "But that is correct."
Keyes sighed heavily once more, running his hand over his forehead as he thought carefully. Finally, his gaze came back up to meet Chrono's. "I have one concession that I need you to meet."
"And that is?"
Fixing Chrono with an intense gaze, Keyes informed him, "I would appreciate it if you would come with me on a separate, lower-risk mission."
"… To one of these other areas?" Chrono asked in slight confusion. "Why would you-"
"To a Covenant weapons cache that a prisoner informed us about," Keyes cut him off. "We don't expect much of a threat, but having you with me would help ensure that nothing goes wrong."
Chrono frowned, eyes narrowing slightly. "Captain, I thought we went over this. I need to get to the control room, as soon as possible."
"We need to get to the control room as soon as possible," Keyes corrected him almost coldly. "I am confident that the Chief can handle that mission himself, and if we're truly going to be allied, it shouldn't matter whether you personally find it or not. Furthermore," he continued with a steadily darkening expression, "if you are going to accept my command, I cannot have you dictating your actions to me. I will refrain from issuing orders that completely deny your participation in our alliance, but you must be willing to accept any other orders I issue. Understood?"
Chrono's eyes flashed slightly as Keyes's last word challenged him. He took a slight step forward as if to back the Captain into a corner, despite his shorter stature. The tension thickened as he stared angrily at Keyes.
All in an instant, the moment passed. Chrono looked down and away, muttering as he did so, "All right, I understand."
"Very well then," Keyes replied, seemingly unruffled by the minor confrontation. "Wellsley, get me in touch with Cortana. We have some searching to do."
Sunlight glimmered at the edge of the planet dominating the skyline, throwing a faint predawn glow over everything in sight. Wind whirled over the top of a lone mesa and the alien buildings on it. On the roof of one of those buildings, Nanoha shivered slightly as her white dress fluttered in the breeze.
That breeze did little to dent the mist hanging over the mesa below. A white blanket sat heavily over the UNSC firebase, reducing the alien buildings and the people that were moving around to silhouettes and shadows. Nanoha's gaze swept blankly over the entire scene, sparing not a moment of attention for anything below. Slowly, she glanced upward, to where the 'edges' of the world she was standing on formed a narrow band across the sky.
Her reverie was interrupted by a voice from behind. "What are you doing up here?" the Master Chief asked as he came up onto the roof.
Nanoha didn't even turn around, as if she hadn't heard. Only the faintest twitch of surprise betrayed the fact that she had noticed at all. All the same, she continued staring into the sky.
"You did-" the Chief started to confirm after a long few moments of silence from Nanoha.
"What am I supposed to do now…" she mumbled softly and dejectedly, as if speaking to herself.
Hidden behind his visor, the Chief's eyes narrowed slightly. Taking another step forward, he asked in reply, "What do you mean?"
That brought Nanoha around in a rush to glare at the Chief. "What am I supposed to do now?" she repeated at a shriek. Unshed tears mixed with a helpless fury in her gaze. "Fate's dying! I don't know any healing magic, and the Arthra refuses to respond… All I can do," she continued, voice choking up as the tears started to flow, "is stand here…"
"Your friend isn't dying," the Chief attempted to reassure her. "Her condition isn't getting any worse."
Nanoha turned away again to look out over the firebase. "She's… not getting any better though," she choked out.
"With an injury like hers, it's not going to get better immediately," the Master Chief reminded her gently.
"I know that!" she shot back instantly. "I mean…" she started to continue, trailing off into a silence that quickly became awkward.
The Chief sighed slightly to himself. "Look, I know this is hard. Every man and woman in the UNSC has seen friends hurt in this war. There's only so much any one person can do about that risk."
"I did everything I could," Nanoha replied bleakly. "At least, I thought I did! I just wanted to help out somehow, make sure that Fate and Chrono and all of you got through this all right… and now…"
"Now, you've learned that war isn't so accommodating," the Master Chief told her grimly. "Even if you do everything right, the enemy will still manage to hurt you. And even the smallest mistake…"
He fell silent as Nanoha fixed him with an almost pleading look. After a brief pause, she quietly demanded, "Was it a mistake?"
"Yes," the Chief replied bluntly. "In that kind of situation, leaving an enemy alive is an unnecessary risk to take, for little if any benefit."
"Would it be better, then, to destroy everything that crossed my path?" Nanoha demanded bitterly. "Fate wouldn't be here today if I had done that in the past!"
"That's not what I suggested," the Chief calmly replied. "However, in our current situation, we have only a minimal ability to take prisoners, and only at the conclusion of hostilities with forces that have surrendered, not in the midst of a running battle."
"So killing them is the only option?" Nanoha demanded. "There must be a reason for their actions, some way to satisfy everyone-"
"They've already stated their 'reasons'," the Chief sternly cut her off. "They've told us in no uncertain terms that their only acceptable ending to this war is the complete annihilation of the human race."
Nanoha could only stare in shock. In a very small voice, she stammered, "They're… trying to kill you all?" At the Chief's nod, she continued, "B-but why?"
"We don't know," the Chief informed her. "But until we can manage to find out, all we can do is bring this war to an end. And that's what I'll do… no matter what that takes."
"I…" Nanoha mumbled, still trying to process her shock and surprise. "I didn't know…"
The Chief turned toward the roof access. "Have you been to Medical yet?" he asked.
The somewhat abrupt change in subject caught Nanoha off guard. "N-no," she stammered in reply. Her gaze dropped to the ground as she continued more softly, "I don't know if I can face Fate yet…"
"I'm not talking about your friend, I'm talking about you," the Chief replied. As Nanoha glanced back up at him with a look of clear surprise and confusion, he continued, "Post-traumatic stress is a serious problem in warfare, even for trained soldiers, which you are not. At the very least, you should be talking to someone."
"Someone other than you?" Nanoha asked with a wan smile.
The Chief glanced back in surprise at the girl before turning back away. "Yes. Someone who's actually trained for this kind of situation."
At that moment, Cortana privately interrupted the Chief. "The Captain is calling for you."
"One moment, Cortana," the Chief replied. To Nanoha, he continued, "I need to get going, but think about it."
"O-okay," she haltingly assented. She stood there even after the Chief had left the roof, staring off into the steadily brightening sky.
Two Pelicans sat on the landing pads of the UNSC firebase. The muted roar of engines in standby mode echoed across the pads, providing a background pressure that could be felt in the air. Aside the Pelicans, two squads of Marines were lined up in full combat gear, armed with assault rifles and carrying fully-loaded packs. They stood at attention as three people came down to the pad from the headquarters building.
With Chrono on one side and the Master Chief on the other, Captain Keyes came to a stop in front of the Marines. After surveying them for a moment, Keyes turned to the Chief.
"All right, Chief," Keyes began. "You understand what I need you to do?"
"Yes, sir," he replied curtly. He was carrying his own assault rifle, but slung over his back was a larger sniper rifle.
"We know the Covenant were looking for Halo's map room," Keyes mused, "but with any luck, this will allow us to find the control room first. Good luck."
Raising his voice, the Master Chief turned to the first squad of Marines. "All right, let's go! Everyone in the Pelican!" As the row of Marines broke formation and headed for one of the gunships, the Chief turned back to Keyes. "Be careful, Captain."
"You needn't worry about me, Chief," Keyes smiled faintly. "I'll have plenty of people watching my back."
Next to him, Chrono sighed in irritation. He was ready for action as well, with his gray barrier jacket deployed and his usual device at the ready. In addition to those, however, he was wearing a helmet identical to the ones that the Marines wore. The slightly too-large helmet shifted awkwardly as he glanced over to the Captain, but it provided a link to the UNSC communications net and recorded everything that he saw, making it more than worth it in the end.
"I still wish I was going with you," he grumbled to the Chief.
"If you keep the Captain safe," the Chief shot back, "I'll make sure to let you know as soon as I find anything."
"Fair enough," Chrono conceded in reply. He glanced back at the headquarters building for a moment, and a slight frown crossed his face as he turned back to the Chief and the Captain. "Fate, of course, is still under medical supervision, but is there someone keeping an eye on Nanoha as well?"
"Last I saw of her," the Chief replied, "about a half-hour ago, she was up on the roof, but she may have gone to Medical herself by now. Cortana, if you could-"
"Wellsley is checking now," the AI interrupted before the Chief could even finish the request. After a moment's pause, she continued, "She's not in Medical, and since we don't have a camera covering the roof itself, we can't be sure if she's still there or not. There isn't any sign of her on any of the camera feeds for the roof accesses, though-"
"I'm coming with you."
The conversation came to an abrupt halt, interrupted by a all-too-familiar voice from behind. Captain Keyes was the first to turn around, just as Nanoha landed behind them. The shimmering wings on Nanoha's feet faded out of existence as she settled on the ground, fixing Chrono and the Captain all the while with a fiercely determined glare. Her barrier jacket stirred in the backdraft from the Pelicans' engines, and Raising Heart was armed and ready for action in her left hand.
"I'm coming with you," she repeated with an almost unnatural calmness. "There's nothing I can do here, and if there's anything at all I can do to help… I have to try."
Chrono stared at Nanoha in surprise. "Nanoha… I had assumed you would be staying here at the base."
"What would that help?" Nanoha asked him. "If I waited here, I'd end up doing nothing at all… and if there's one thing I can't stand…"
"Staying here wouldn't be doing nothing," the Chief interjected. "I can understand the desire to be helpful, but sometimes you need to worry about yourself first."
Nanoha's gaze wavered for a brief moment. "I don't know if standing around here will help with that," she finally muttered, unwilling to deny the Chief's words. "Sitting here, with nothing to do but worry about Fate, or Chrono, or all of you…" Her eyes came back up to sweep over all three of the people facing her. "I'd rather go with you all and help fight."
"I don't know if I'm willing to accept this," Captain Keyes chose that moment to interject. "You're also a member of the Bureau, I assume?"
"Uh, well," Nanoha mumbled, caught off guard. "Not exactly."
"Chrono…" the Captain rumbled dangerously, fixing the Bureau enforcer with a glare.
"Captain," Chrono grimaced as he forced the words out, "as it stands, Nanoha is a civilian assistant that works with the Bureau on occasion. With all due respect, sir, I would consider her as an agent of the Bureau at this moment, and I would appreciate it if a member of the Bureau could be present on the Chief's mission."
"Completely unacceptable," Keyes shot back instantly. "I'm not about to let a civilian, who's younger than you no less, into combat just like that."
Both Nanoha and Chrono started speaking at once.
Nanoha protested, "But, I might be able to do something…"
Chrono began, "Captain, Nanoha is hardly…"
With a wave of his hand, the Captain silenced them both. "Enough."
Cortana chose that moment to interject over a private comm line. "Captain?"
"What is it, Cortana?" he snapped back with a mild note of irritation, causing Nanoha and Chrono to fix him with confused looks.
"Only that the regs on this have been ignored in the past, sir," Cortana softly reminded him.
Keyes stiffened sharply. Too softly for anyone else to hear, he hissed angrily, "Are you suggesting I let someone else go through that, Cortana?"
"I know what decision she wants you to make," Cortana replied.
Keyes sighed in helpless frustration. His gaze swept over the Master Chief before falling on the girl still waiting expectantly on the landing pad. "What is it?" he asked of her slowly. "You're no SPARTAN, not even one of my Marines. What is it that's driving you to do this?"
Nanoha replied with a small, slightly strained smile. "Because if you have the power to help, shouldn't you use it?"
"Even in a war zone?" the Captain demanded.
"I've had to fight before," she replied. "I had to fight my way through the Garden of Time against a small army of combat drones and fought against an enemy more powerful than all of us here combined by myself."
Next to Nanoha, Chrono twitched in irritation as she inadvertently referenced classified Bureau information. Ignoring him, she continued, "I haven't had to fight an enemy like this before, but I'll make it through just fine. I will."
The Captain sighed in frustration one final time. "Chief…"
"Keep her alive."