Agent North Dakota

AI: Theta (innocence)

"…just take them back to where you are now. The location doesn't even have to be defended –the only way in is far too strong for them to break it down," the Director continued. "Find the pilots and protect them. The Flood seem to be targeting them."

North was well aware of what they would have to face to get to where the majority of the remaining pilots had taken refuge –a small rec room, found near their section of the living quarters and two floors up from the team's current location. Looking around at his team, North wasn't sure whether to be confident or concerned.

South had remained awake with him. To kill time she'd loaded various weapons and stacked the ammo for each gun next to them. He knew he could count on her to watch his back.

The rest of the team slept, unaware of their new mission.

North's main concern was Illinois. Ever since the implantation of Zeta, he'd changed. Become far more withdrawn. With other Freelancers suffering greatly with their AI breaking down or lashing out, North didn't know what to expect of the older agent.

In any case, they needed to leave. The pilots couldn't hold out forever.

North gently shook Lou awake while South took care of Nevada, hitting the younger woman in the stomach –not hard, but not gently either. The job of waking up Illinois was left to Nevada by some unspoken agreement, and after putting her helmet back on she poked the man's cheek until he woke up. He looked at her silently for a moment, nodding in thanks when she handed him his helmet.

"What're we doing, kids?" Lou asked gruffly. He didn't seem too annoyed that his nap had been interrupted.

"Fetching some pilots from the rec room to here," South announced, slinging an assault rifle onto her back and stocking up on ammo as she went.

"Apparently they're being targeted," North finished.

"Those things can target people? Specifically?" Nevada piped, looking between the other four agents nervously. "I thought they were like… zombies."

"Who knows?" North shrugged, a little unsure himself but covering it up easily. "Even if they can't, it's best to keep the pilots safe –they're our best shot out of here if we're not being evacuated by the UNSC."

Nevada nodded uncertainly. Lou patted her on the shoulder a few times before handing her a battle rifle along with as much ammunition as she was able to carry.

North wondered if it was Nevada he should be worried about in combat. She was clearly scared, and he wasn't sure she'd be able to push through it. If she freaked out when a swarm of them attacked…

And then North remembered the disturbing calmness that washed over her during the fight and retreat that led them here just an hour ago.

He was still worried, but for a very different reason.

"Oh God," South groaned, warily eyeing the walls and floor, now coated in a disgusting greenish-yellow matter. Lou rolled his eyes exaggeratedly, putting his whole head in the movement to make it extra clear, and jumped onto it with a squelch.

"Don't worry," he reassured her in a manner that may not have been completely sincere. "I don't think it'll stain your armour."

"Right, because that's–"

"Um…"

Both South and Lou looked at Nevada, who was shifting uncomfortably with the two gazes focused on her.

"Could you guys be quiet?" she whispered, so quietly they could barely hear her. "What if they hear us?"

"We have guns," South replied, lifting hers up to show Nevada that they did indeed have guns.

"So do some of those things," Illinois muttered, taking it upon himself to lead the team down the hall, towards the small rec room on the other end of the ship (width-wise) and two floors up.

North watched the exchange with something approaching exasperation. Lou just seemed amused.

Theta? North thought, waiting for his AI to answer.

Yeah?

You got my back, right?

Duh, his AI responded simply, in the tone of a smirking child. North grinned and followed close behind Illinois, DMR at the ready –he had decided the sniper rifle would've been more trouble than it's worth in such close quarters.

The corridors' lights were all out, either suffering from some sort of power outage or covered completely in the disgusting substance that coated so much of the space. The stuff grew everywhere, taking up just enough space to make the hallway uncomfortably claustrophobic and seemed to absorb sound. Except for the sucking sound their boots made every time they took a step, there was complete silence.

So far there was no sign of any Flood, but North didn't like it. While he wasn't quite as eager to add to his kill count as his sister, he would rather be fighting the enemy, knowing where they are, than wandering around a silent ship and having no clue if there was a stationary Flood right around the corner.

His motion trackers detected no movement, but that didn't mean the halls and rooms they passed were empty.

The elevator had to be less than 100m away, hidden by a few twists and turns in the ship's layout. They were going the quickest route possible to the rec room, but slowly, the screams that rang through their radios during that first battle still fresh in their minds and demanding caution.

Inside North's mind, Theta was tense. North knew he was a pretty tough kid, though. He wouldn't break.

I can hear them, Theta murmured. His voice was sudden and caused North to flinch, a reaction the other four largely ignored –the one who didn't have an AI was still familiar with some of the effects, including responding to what seems to be nothing.

Who? North asked.

The infected AI, Theta whispered, scared to talk about it. Eta and some others. They want me to join them.

North tried to send a calming influence to Theta, one half of his mind focused solely on the conversation and the other making sure they were on the right path.

Then he realised how Theta's predicament could be useful.

Theta, North said seriously. I know this might be hard, but can you tell which AI are calling you?

Working under the assumption that the AI couldn't be corrupted without the Freelancer being infected, it could be a good way to keep tabs on who (out of the Freelancers with AI) was alive and who was… not. And if there were any powerful enemies to contend with.

I know Eta is there, but the others are too scrambled to make out, Theta replied. It will take me a while to clear them up. Want me to try?

Go for it, North said. Just keep your head in the game.

North felt the whirring in his mind that meant that Theta was on it.

"I vote South," Lou muttered, staring at the large doors of the elevator. Someone had to call it, placing them very close to the doors and whatever lay behind them if the elevator was right there. There was no sign of its location on the floors.

"I vote Nevada," South grumbled, giving the younger woman a quick, bored look.

"I vote we draw straws…"

North sighed. Lou and South just didn't get along, and South knew she'd either met her match or better in Lou when it came to insults. So she turned to Nevada, who simply couldn't defend herself in a battle of words. This wasn't a great mix.

In the end, Illinois shoved past South and called the elevator himself, quickly backing up to the position he, South and Lou held –around the corner to the right of the short corridor leading to the elevator. North and Nevada had set up on the left.

The elevator didn't open immediately. It was probably on a higher floor, making its way down to them, bringing with it God only knew what. North didn't particularly like taking the elevator in this situation –anything could be behind those doors when it opened, and he'd always been taught to never use them in an emergency. But this was the route the Director had laid out for him, plus the quickest to the trapped pilots, so he didn't have much of a choice.

As the elevator doors began to open, a shrill screech carried through the halls. South, Lou and Illinois whirled to see the onslaught of Flood hurtling towards them. Mostly the smaller infection forms, but a few turned Marines and one or two engineers.

North stepped forward to help, Nevada close on his heels, but the elevator door opened and more of the Beach-Balls spilled out, a few larger, top-heavy, bulging creatures behind them.

Cursing, North focused his attention on them, trusting the other three to handle what was coming from their side.

He saw Nevada out of the corner of his eye, staying a bit further back and keeping half an eye on the other three's movements. He wanted to yell at her for ignoring her duty, but–

"All clear, girl!" Lou called. Nevada sharply gestured for North to get away from the intersection where he was fighting, before pulling a grenade from her belt and popping the pin, tossing it around the corner towards the elevator as Lou did the same.

Two bangs followed and a splatter of brownish-green gunk sprayed from the short passage. That hadn't killed all of them, however. Just caused those carrier types to explode and spawn more.

North scowled, knowing his DMR wouldn't be nearly as useful against just those small, fast forms. His motion tracker gave him something else to shoot at, though.

Coming up behind Nevada and North were a group of three infected Marines.

Wait… that armour.

Two infected Marines. One infected Freelancer Agent Montana.

North heard Lou curse in the background, but was more concerned with Nevada, who was focusing on finishing off the infection forms in front of her, still pouring from the elevator but in smaller amounts.

"Watch it!" North ordered, shooting the infected Marine preparing to lunge at her twice in the shoulder. He didn't kill it, but the creature fell back and gave Nevada enough time to scramble out of range.

With enemies pouring from three directions, North thought fast.

"Clear the elevator!" he ordered. He held back the three infected soldiers as best as he could as Nevada turned the corner, Illinois reloading his shotgun on the other side to assist her on their task. South and Lou held back the Flood coming in from the right, but when the stream turned to a trickle, South ran over to North's side and prepared to help him.

"Elevator clear!" Nevada announced from behind them.

Illinois and Nevada quickly took their places with the other three, Nevada electing to help Lou mop up the creatures coming in from the right and Illinois helping with the three on the left.

With Illinois' shotgun, one infected trooper went down quickly. The other snarled and lunged forward, aiming for Illinois.

North and Illinois both shot at it –South was aiming at the Flood Montana– but one went wide and the other only hit the thing's belly, not doing as much damage as it could've. Illinois crashed to the ground with the thing on top of him, shotgun knocked out of his hands as his attention was forcefully turned to defending himself from the beating the infected trooper was giving him.

North tried kicking it off, the creature barely seeming to feel it, too devoted to pounding Illinois into a stain on the organic substance covering the floor. Lou yelled something –nothing worded, but he somehow understood– and North gripped the creature by one of the weird antennae protruding from its back, lifted its upper body well away from Illinois', and ensured he was out of the way as Lou emptied a Magnum's clip into it.

The thing slumped, dead weight in North's arms, and Illinois pushed it to the side.

South, meanwhile, had been fighting with the Flood Montana alone. She was having trouble.

In life, Montana had been rather terrible at normal hand-to-hand combat (as terrible as a Freelancer could be, anyway) although she was pretty good at staff fighting. Her death and infection had turned her arm into a staff –one that still had armour on it in some parts.

Montana kept trying to sweep South's legs from under her, defending herself from gunfire by making a shield out of her wrist and shoulder armour. It was a feat that should've broken an arm.

North felt anger bubble up inside of him. No one hurt his sister. Not while he was around.

He aimed as carefully as he could while hurrying; shooting where there was only greenish flesh or the remnants of the black under-suit. The Flood Montana shrieked and stumbled back, giving South some room to manoeuvre. She backed up to North's side, raising her rifle and taking steady aim.

Montana recovered and made its way over to the group again, closing the small gap.

Illinois stepped forward and tried to have a go with his shotgun. Montana leaped out of the way just as he pulled the trigger. He re-aimed and tried again.

Click.

The fight in the elevator had taken its toll on his ammunition. Illinois grunted and fell back behind the others to reload.

North and South opened fire at the same time, taking advantage of the fact that the creature only had one shield and could only block one of the two. Nevada joined in, steadying herself on one knee and aiming for the legs wherever she could find a break in the armour.

Flood Montana ripped a pistol from its holster, flinging the holster somewhere down the hall in the process, and clumsily shot at Nevada and Illinois.

North heard Nevada cry out, and paused in his assault to check up on her. Before he could get a word out, Lou pushed past him with Illinois' borrowed shotgun.

South aimed low to draw away Montana's shield. Lou aimed for the nest of antennae on the thing's shoulder.

BANG.

The creature that had once been Montana, a cheery blonde Freelancer, collapsed to the ground.

Lou shook his head and tossed the shotgun back to Illinois, who caught it easily.

"Too bad," Lou mumbled. "I liked her."

While North was loath to split up, it did sound like a good idea. Two people would wait and ensure the elevator and surrounding halls remained clear of Flood, while three retrieved the pilots.

Given that the pilots also had combat training, however basic, North reasoned that the rescue should be able to go off with few casualties even if it was probably the more dangerous of the two missions.

The question was who to leave behind.

Nevada was an obvious choice, if only because she and her mines would be useful in defence. But if the rescue team had underestimated the forces of the Flood and got stuck up there, her knowledge could be useful. In any case, he wanted to keep Nevada and South away from each other.

He also wanted to keep Lou and South away from each other. He wanted his sister with him, but as the two highest-rated agents of the group, he decided that it was better if they separated.

"Illinois, you know how to set a few mines, right?" North asked.

Illinois nodded.

"Good. Nevada, hand over… how many do you have?"

"He already has some," Nevada replied, nodding to the black bag designed for carrying ordnance clipped onto the back of Illinois' armour. She kept prodding at the two new ridges in the armour on her right shoulder. "I have six on me, he has… four?" Nevada looked to Illinois for confirmation, which he gave in the form of a curt nod.

"Alright," North muttered, mostly to himself. "Ok," he said louder, "Illinois and South, you stay here, make sure our exit is nice and clear when we have the pilots with us. They might have wounded," North added the last part realising it might be true. None of the assembled Freelancers had more than the most basic medical training, and transportation could be an issue. "Lou and Nevada, you're with me."

Illinois nodded and began setting up the mines, apparently deciding on two on each of the halls leading away from the elevator. South stared at North for a few moments.

North knew what his sister was thinking and sighed. I'm not doing this for the glory. C'mon, South, you know me better, he willed her to realise. She shrugged off his gaze and fixed her attention on looking down the two hallways.

Lou cleared his throat, already in the elevator with Nevada behind him.

North joined them, pressed the button for two floors up, and took one last glance at South, his twin, before the doors closed tight between them.

A/N: Another chapter done!

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and thanks for sticking with me this far! I estimate this story's going to be 20+ chapters, so it might take a while…

Anyway, criticism is very much appreciated (especially on the quality of OCs, description and emotion in the writing) although any review is great. Even flames give me an idea that I'm doing something wrong.

Hope you're all having a great holiday season!