Twenty-Nine: Rabbit Hole Redux

August 29th, 2552

Jennifer caught up with Emilie about a quarter klick from ONI Sword Base proper and just barely stalled the more successfully purloined Revenant's engine long enough for her team member to leap aboard. Before the petty officer had settled himself into the turret, they were off again, coasting smooth and fast toward the courtyard, wind roaring in their ears and exhaust trailing in their wake.

"I don't like all of this secrecy," Emile said above the engine's hum, for her ears only. "If they wanted a torch and burn, they could've dropped a MAC round from the atmosphere. They've done it before and we were a hell of a lot closer to the impact. Just blow the whole thing off the damn map and don't look back."

Don't look back. Impossible, Jennifer decided, especially here, where the landscape itself seemed to insist on retrospection. That was the bluff where she had insisted on hijacking the Wraith and Kat had called off the artillery to give her the chance. That up ahead was the gate where they had been ambushed. Inside was the—

Stop it, said a voice in the back of her head that sounded suspiciously like the old Six, resurrected from whatever grave she had retired to. Next it will be, 'Oh, this tile. This tile was the tile Jorge and Kat both stepped on after Halsey yelled at us and Carter finally yelled back. Oh, cry the beloved tile.'

"I swear," Emile continued, shaking Jennifer out of her reverie just in time to guide the Revenant through Sword Base's gate. "It's all so suspicious that it's making my nose twitch."

Her mouth twitched with a smirk of its own as she spared a glance down toward the warrant officer in the turret. "Don't worry about it," she said. "It's not like anybody's looking."

"Or would be able to tell if they were," he replied with some satisfaction and Jennifer noted the occasion as one of the very few times she had seen Emile take pride in his skull-faced helmet.

"Four, Six, what's your ETA?"

"Less than a minute," Emile answered Carter presumably so that his teammate could keep her eyes on the road. "What, are we late to the Covvies' garden party? Hate to admit it but I'm not loving what they've done with the place."

"You and me both," was Carter's wry reply, no doubt wondering how Emile could keep cracking quips at a time like this when all could be lost in the blink of an eye. "Falcon group has landed; hostiles have been engaged. Jun is working on getting the gate open."

"Really missing Kat about now…" the sniper himself muttered into his comm and something twisted in Jennifer's gut. For some odd, dizzy reason, she remembered her mother's reaction when word came that the Covenant had taken the other holdout on Harmony: the peals of laughter at the revelation that their little city, too small to be rightfully called such, was next and that the evac wouldn't get there fast enough. 'If I don't laugh,' she had said, clutching her mouth and chin in the palm of her hand as if afraid they would otherwise fall off. 'If I don't laugh, I'll cry.'

"Coming up on the gate fast, soldier-girl," Emile said quickly and Jennifer felt her grip jar on the controls.

"That's because I'm going too fast," she admitted and checked herself. Into the comm, she said, "Noble Team, the Revenant is friendly. Repeat, it is friendly. So be… friendly."

Emile snickered. Carter, less easy to amuse as always, replied, "Understood, Six," just as Jun announced, "Got it. Gate is open, boss."

"Turret ten o'clock!" Emile announced and turned his own mounted gun against the enemy.

Jennifer briefly stalled the engine to give him a better shot, but Carter objected. "Turret's not going to follow us into the base. Get over here, both of you. The Covenant is all over this place as it is. Ditch the Covvies' ride, fry it, and get inside."

"No shiny toys for us," Emile muttered but he climbed out of his gunnery turret without issue once they were just outside the courtyard proper. With no small amount of regret, Jennifer did the same and, as Emile sprinted down under the wall to join Carter and Jun, pumped one of the craft's lateral engines full of bullets until it was a smoking wreck of plasma and metal. That being done, she ducked under the wall and jogged through the ajar gate, the sound of a firefight preluding her entrance.

Reloading her DMR in preparation, she found her ammo wanting. She wouldn't be much help with seven bullets; Jennifer decided grimly and slipped off the beaten path of Covenant corpses as Emile's announcement rang in her ears: "Tangos coming from the pad!"

"And the garage," Jun added as she took a running start and slid through the gap between a truck's wheels, scratching up her armor. There would have been a time when she cared, but not today. She met a jackal on the other side pawing at the equipment of a fallen trooper. It barely had time to squawk its surprise before she shot it between the eyes. Six bullets.

Carter's voice shouted a command in her ears as she took the jackal's place, scavenging suitable ammo from the ODST trooper's body and stuffing the clips into her armor's compartments: "Six, where the hell are you?"

"On my way, commander," she answered and then made good on that statement, skirting around the trucks at a jog and reloading her weapon as she moved. There were a few more jackals doing the same with their own needle rifles; she shot one and then charged the other, knocking its sinewy body to one side and turning at the last moment to put a bullet in its knobby, feathered head. They really are so different from us, she thought as she made up the distance between her and the rest of her team, no matter what Jorge or Jun said or says. They're nothing like what we imagined in the old sci-fi vids from Earth and, more than that, they deemed us unworthy to join their little intergalactic club. But it's nothing like the old vids. In the old vids, the good guys win.

She saw Carter exchange fire with two jackals that leapt lithely from side to side, rolling and bounding between dual cover points of a truck and a small mountain of rubble from a collapsed garage. Noble's commander had exchanged his own DMR for an assault rifle to suit the occasion and was providing covering fire as Emile and then Jun ducked into the parking lot. "Jennifer," he said above the constant pop of bullets, "I swear, if you don't get your ass over here—"

The leftmost jackal darted out of cover for a split second and she knew her commander was understandably too preoccupied with gunning down its partner to take advantage of the opportunity. She shouldered her DMR, stood her ground, and fired off a series of quick, precise shots. When both jackals had crumpled to the ground due to their combined efforts, Carter spun around, assault rifle lifted and ready, but lowered it when he saw the familiar crimson armor of his surviving lieutenant.

"You sure know how to make an entrance," he started to say but then lifted his rifle once more and, understanding, Jennifer darted forward into a quick roll that landed her crouching and turned to face the enemy.

There was no need. The elite hit the ground hard, its shields, armor, and exoskeleton, all already weakened, pumped full of rounds. She got to her feet and backed cautiously into the parking lot as Carter covered her, saying, "Jun, it's about time to lock down that gate."

"Remote command is primed and ready," the sniper answered as Jennifer joined him in the base's interior. Lifting her rifle's scope to her visor, Jennifer scanned the space beyond the gate and found it swarmed with reinforcements.

"On my mark," Carter was saying, but she already knew that his mark would be too late. "Do it now," Jennifer said quickly and when Emile added his voice to hers, she knew that he saw through his scope what she did.

"Now, then," their commander agreed and Jun hit the command, shutting down both the gate and the parking garage entrance.

"There," the sniper said with satisfaction, "that should buy us all the time we need."

"So long as they don't wise up and start the AA guns back up again," Emile retorted. "Then there's no way airlifting us out of here is gonna fly." He paused briefly. "Get it?"

Jun for one seemed more preoccupied with the elevator's controls on the far side of the parking lot. Jennifer, on the other hand, looked not at the elevator itself but at the scorch marks scarring its doors and the space around it, remembering how Kat, in a bid to secure some cover from the hunters that had once roamed this very garage, had tossed grenades like party favors into the corridor to take out the elite guardian. The memory was vivid enough that Jennifer had to check herself to make sure that no hunters were creeping up behind her this time. Instead, she looked over her shoulder into the shattered glass windshield of a devastated warthog and saw that the only thing creeping up on her was Noble Six.

"What is everyone's damage?" Emile griped. "It's only the end of the world as we know it."

"The only damage you should be concerned with," Jun said curtly, stepping back from the elevator's controls, "is the fact that the elevator's electrical is fried six ways from Sunday. There's no going up the quick n' easy way this time around."

Carter clicked the safety on his DMR and bashed the grip against the padlock on a door at the far end of the parking structure. Kicking the door open, he entered with his rifle locked and loaded, making sure the way was clear. "Then we go through maintenance," he decided, his voice strange and echoed as Jennifer followed him into the maintenance hall and looked upward at the series of metal catwalks above. "One way or another, we'll get where we need to go. Emile, take point."

Jennifer, already moving to do just that, stopped in her tracks and scowled as Emile moved past her and up a metal staircase that clanged with each of the warrant officer's steps, well aware of the fact that she had a lighter step, was better placed, and would have been the better choice. And she had been the first choice, before. So what had changed?

Moving ahead and scoping the next level of catwalks with his DMR at the ready, Emile declared that the way was, "Clear," and then added his own personal brand of commentary as he was inevitably bound to do. "Careful. With all these sparking wires, we'll be damned lucky if anything works."

"I think we're due for some luck," Jun remarked and Jennifer, refusing to be left behind, outstripped Carter's pace and joined Emile. But where he had looked forward, she looked up.

"Movement ahead," she said, looking up at the catwalks above. "I think we boxed some hostiles in here with us."

"No avoiding it," Carter responded grimly. "Engage, but be smart about it. Nobody wants to take a fall around here."

"No cover," Jun observed.

"No problem," Emile rejoined. "I just reload."

Deciding to take the opportunity to do just that, Jennifer dropped an empty cartridge to the catwalk below and followed Emile up the ramp. The warrant officer charged forward onto a bend in the scaffolding… and then immediately jerked backward, knocking into her as a series of needles embedded themselves into the railing and the far wall beyond. "What happened to 'I just reload'?" she asked him irritably.

"You want to charge full throttle into four jackals all lined up, be my guest," Emile retorted before darting back out to risk a few shots. Ducking back out of the line of fire beside her, he added, "Maybe offer to paint their nails while you're at it, soldier-girl."

"Maybe," she retorted, throwing herself out there to attempt the same, trying to line up shots at a infuriatingly fast pace, before crouching back into cover, "you should trade ideas on armor ornamentation."

"Armor ornamentation?" repeated Emile incredulously, taking his turn. "That's just lame. And way too many syllables. Hey, where'd the Covvies go?"

He stood dead center on the bend in the catwalks, a position that would have gotten him impaled by needles a moment before - Kat's armored body hit the ground, a star-shaped hole, a splintering sunburst of fractured glass where here once immaculately polished visor used to be –Jennifer shook her head. Not that. Not now. Not now when they had all been doing so well forgetting.

"Are you two quite done?" asked Jun through the comm, but he sounded more amused than anything else. "I've got to hand it to you both: you make great distractions."

Emile swore loudly. "Jun, you bastard kill-stealer, where are you?"

Jennifer, knowing a sniper's habits, looked up, scanned the above catwalks, and found the vantage point from which Carter and Jun had been able to pick off the unsuspecting jackals at their leisure. By reverse reasoning, she traced a path downward from one platform to another and found the rickety metal ladder they had used to their advantage. Impressed despite herself, she shot the two of them a mock-salute, which Jun returned. Emile flipped them off, and that seemed to be the thing that sent their commander over the edge.

There was a loud clang as Carter dropped down from the higher point and hit the catwalk in front of the two of them, the shock of landing absorbed into his shields. "Alright, that's enough," he told Emile flatly, but spared a glance in Jennifer's direction too. "This isn't a game. We've got a job to do and there's too much to lose if we fail. So let's get to it. No more smart comments. I mean it this time."

'If I don't laugh, I'll cry,' her mother had said and now the words were on her daughter's tongue. But Jennifer swallowed them hard and tasted their bitterness before granting her commander a nod and marching past him up the platforms. For what felt like the first time since her arrival and induction into Noble Team, Emile gave Carter more trouble than she did, standing his ground, skull glaring by default, but that too passed and Noble Four followed Six up the ramp, one paper-cut Spartan after another.

"Welcome t-t-t-t-to the of-of-of-of-of-ice of Naval Intelligence," stuttered the cool female voiced VI as they entered the security checkpoint from the maintenance hatch at the catwalks' summit, and Jennifer felt the chill of déjà vu gone wrong. "P-p-p-please wait as an On-n-n-n-NI represent-t-ta-ta-tive will meet-t-t—"

Emile, still sullen and sour with it, fired a round into the speaker, putting the warped program out of its misery. "That's not gonna happen," he muttered and then glanced in Carter's direction as if daring his commander to put him in his place again.

"Where we going now, boss?" Jun asked, checking around corners and behind furniture and playing a subtle hand of peacekeeper while he was at it.

"Dot?" Carter sighed and yielded the field to their AI.

"Please proceed to the prearranged coordinates," was the crisp reply and then they all had a turn to sigh, Jennifer included as she glanced to the radar on her visor's interior display and saw the coordinates light up like a flare some distance away and above as no doubt the rest of her team did.

"That's not cryptic at all."

"You know as much as I do, Noble Four," Dot replied and, intend or not, the wry humor made Jennifer chuckle slightly.

"Atrium through here," Jun announced as he banged his fist against a pad and activated the door, stepping through the doorway and securing the corridor, "and coordinates just beyond."

"Let's pick up the pace then," Carter replied and then Jennifer knew that he saw the same ghosts she did. "Jun, take point. We'll follow."

Not funny, Jennifer thought darkly, having been passed over once again but she told herself that this was hardly the time to be calling her commander out. Matter for another time, in another place…

If they didn't run out of times and places before then.

The coordinates led them to a corridor piled high with sandbags, broken turret machinery, and bodies. With strange respect, Emile was careful to step over and around the corpses as he took the lead down the passage, his armor splattered with the blood of the elites that had darted through the atrium. The hallway was as silent as a tomb, but that didn't stop Jennifer from leaning down to collect dogtags for a future, more fitting remembrance. She tried not to look at the mangled faces and bodies connected the necks she pulled the chains free from.

Bringing up the rear now, Jun remarked, "Looks like they got themselves cornered here."

"Or were committed to this position," Carter offered in return, moving forward into the corridor as well, trying to discern why these troopers had made their last stand here… and, more critically, why Dot had led them to this place.

Ahead, Emile darted forward fast into the continuing corridor, rifle lifted preemptively and then lowered. "I'm going with cornered," he said. "There's nothing here."

There's something here, Jennifer thought but she didn't yet feel confident enough in that opinion to voice it aloud. All she knew was that "If ONI sent us here, to this spot; they did it for a reason."

"They have their reasons, ONI," Jun agreed, "but take a good look at this place, you know, past all the dead people. I don't see any load-bearing columns. Sir," he looked to Carter, "if we're supposed to blow this place to bits, this is the last place to do it from."

This is the place for something, Jennifer thought, but she didn't know what yet. Carter, looking for more concrete reasons for this apparent mistake, referred to Dot again. "Dot, check your vector."

"Vector confirmed, commander," the AI replied, slightly reproving if one had imagination. "We are precisely where ONI has directed us."

Jennifer, half-listening, paced forward to the apparent end of the corridor, trying to remember when they had last been here, what had happened that day. They had taken Sword Base back, they had fought up the height of the atrium, they had blown up the Covenant's aerial support, she had lost her knife, and they had met with—

"Is Dr. Halsey dead?" she asked abruptly.

"MIA," Jun replied quietly. "No confirmation either way but presumed—"

"Apologies," Dot, well, apologized and Emile, Jun, and Jennifer all looked at Carter in surprise. He lifted a hand and shrugged as though to wordlessly tell them that he had no clue what was going on either. "Coordinates revised. Please confirm, Noble Leader."

"Revised…?" Carter, Emile, and Jun all repeated, their disbelief near-synchronized. Only Jennifer felt mild surprise and smiled because of it.

"By an AI of unknown origin," was the prim response, "whose clearance is well above my own."

The revised coordinates lit up Jennifer's radar. She followed their flare and realized—

"Well," Jun observed with sardonic cheerfulness, "this new AI is pointing us, oh, a klick and a half east and… Oh. Two thousand feet underground."

"I don't know about this, commander," Emile added, seizing the opportunity. "I didn't bring my shovel."

"Sir," Jun said before Carter had a chance to respond. "AI free, this one time. Obviously, these coordinates are junk data and we should just find our own place to blow up this damn thing, because it's just going to get worse the longer we go chasing them down the—"

Emile jumped back from the rear of the corridor and Jennifer lifted her DMR as the sound of metal gears grinding against each other drowned the hallway. Barely missing a beat, the rest of Noble Team joined her, all of their guns directed at the slowly ascending wall that had appeared oh-so solid just moments before. The passageway lurched open and the grinding noise ended as abruptly as it began. Already closest, Emile peered into the darkness beyond. Jennifer activated her helmet's night vision just in time for a series of emergency lights to flicker awake, illuminating the passage.

"Rabbit hole," Jun finished his interrupted sentence, clearly taken aback by the sentiment's suitability to the occasion.

"Dot," said Carter as though doubting whether the AI was still with them. "What is this?"

"Our revised route, commander."

"Actual didn't say anything about secret passages," Jun objected. "He said, 'Torch and burn,' not 'Take a page out of Alice in Wonderland' with a strange new AI for the white rabbit."

"McGuffin much?" Emile muttered darkly.

"Maybe Holland didn't know," Jennifer said quietly. "Maybe ONI was worried communications were compromised and couldn't tell him the whole story."

"Somehow, that doesn't make me feel better."

"We've come this far, Jun," Carter decided. "Might as well see it through to the end. Your new AI friend say anything else, Dot?"

Emile looked to Jennifer and jerked his head in the direction of the tunnel. She shrugged her indifference and he went ahead and took point. One after another, they followed the blinking emergency lights down the hidden corridor. There were no bodies, she noticed but kept her weapon at the ready all the same. In fact, the hallway looked polished, clean, a relic of another time that felt so long ago.

"Dot?" she heard Carter, somewhere behind her, say again and this time their AI responded.

"She says she's been expecting you."

"That's perfect," Emile muttered and Jennifer had to agree.

"Your nose twitching again?" she asked him with quite amusement as the tunnel began to open up in front of them.

"Like I'm the damn rabbit in Jun's metaphor," he agreed and she snorted her laughter. But then the tunnel expanded even more, exponentially in fact, and they all caught their breath and stared.

"That's not something you see every day," remarked Jennifer to the tram parked in the hollow of the cavern, lights on, doors open, waiting for them.

"Commander, I'm thinking that it's safe to assume that this cave is not in fact a natural formation," Jun announced.

"Don't need a shovel at least," Emile muttered in response. "Think this is a Covenant set-up?"

"If this the Covvies' work," Jennifer said with a shrug, "it's a pretty elaborately baited trap. Question is, do we take the bait?"

"Dot?" Carter checked.

"You and your time were led here, commander, for a reason, I am told."

Jennifer and Jun exchanged a glance even through the barrier of their visors. Carter sighed and looked to the tram. "We've come this far," he said again by way of decision. "I'll be damned with we leave here with anything less than an explanation for this wild goose chase. Let's go."

As they filed into the mirage-like tram, a vision she was expecting to dissipate like smoke in the air at any moment, she found herself considering Jorge: something she hadn't done in a long time, it felt like, with the second tragedy of Kat and other complications that had drawn them all underwater where a ghost wouldn't be able to save them from drowning. As none of Noble Team took a seat amongst places clearly not designed for Spartans, she thought of how they all had stood at attention when Halsey had berated them during their first mission at Sword Base… until Carter had berated her back. How Jorge had lingered, waiting for acknowledgement from his surrogate mother of sorts and had had to ask it of her at the end, but hadn't seemed to mind. Strange things. What was it he had said when he was floating outside the Sabre cockpit and Sword Base was under siege below them?

"Ez megszakad a szivem," she murmured, earning her a couple of odd looks from her teammates as the tram lurched to life. She remembered Dot reminding him of the math, of the inevitability of Sword Base's fate and that there was nothing he could do. I know, Jorge had replied and, in real time, Jennifer found herself humming, Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do. It seemed that fatalism was the trending emotion around here.