Title: Perchance to Dream (2/?)
Feedback: Please be gentle.
Distribution: Gimme credit and a link.
Rating: Harsh language, violence, that's about it.
Spoilers: Halo 3 and Mass Effect 2.
Disclaimer: Halo belongs to Bungie and Microsoft, and Mass Effect belongs to Bioware and EA. I'm just borrowing them for a while.
Summary: The Illusive Man hoped to get Shepard on his side. When that fails, a contingency plan must be implemented.
Author's Note: For the record, I won't be limiting myself to gameplay-related restrictions. That means any character can use any weapon, though with varying skill, depending on training; biotics won't be restricted to the set powers in the games; and ammo types and grenades will be equipment, not powers.
John was taking the time to familiarize himself with the Reach. Heavy frigate she may be, but the ship was positively tiny compared to what he was used to, only a handful of decks. The bottom deck was the shuttle bay, and right above it, the engineering deck, where he had briefly met Daniels and Donnelly, the latter of whom appeared disappointed at not getting the chance to work with Shepard. So long as he did his job, John didn't much care what he thought.
The central deck above Engineering was mostly crew quarters, but it also held Lawson's office and the empty medical bay. Above that was the gun deck, where the spinal MAC was mounted. The mass accelerators in this world favored much smaller projectiles than the MACs at home but made up for it with sheer velocity and a much higher rate of fire. The gun deck was also where the armory and firing range were, though why it was above the crew deck rather than closer to the shuttle bay baffled him.
Then again, Cerberus was a civilian organization.
The top two decks were the command deck and the loft, the latter of which served as his captain's quarters. The quarters were, in his opinion, excessively lavish, but then again, he was used to spending his time traveling from world to world in cryo. At the moment, he was on the command deck, familiarizing himself with the CIC. The CIC was circular with a holographic map of the galaxy in the center, surrounded by duty stations recessed into the walls and floor like spokes on a wheel. The bridge was branched off toward the bow, while the aft corridor led to a conference room, communication room, and research laboratory.
"Hello, Master Chief! My name is Kelly Chambers. I'll be your yeoman on board the Reach."
John nodded in acknowledgement at the perky redhead standing next to the navigational interface. He wasn't precisely comfortable with the idea of commanding a ship; he belonged on the ground. While he had studied fleet operations as part of his training, he had never had the opportunity to put those studies to use... and that was assuming the tactics and strategies that applied in his world wouldn't get them all blown to space dust in this universe. The very presence of eezo meant that this world was built on a completely different technological base from the one he had studied. Disruptor torpedoes, for example, were far more effective against kinetic barriers than Archer missiles could ever hope to be against Covenant shields.
Still, from Lawson and Taylor's example, Cerberus had no shortage of competent personnel. Lawson had installed herself as his XO, and unless he saw specific reason to do otherwise, he intended to let her and Cortana run the Reach's daily operations and any ship to ship combat.
"The Reach is almost fully staffed, but we still need to pick up our medical officer and assemble a ground team to assist you in the field," Chambers said. "The Illusive Man has forwarded dossiers on several candidates to your private terminal."
"I recommend we head for the Barn first," Lawson interjected as she approached. "We can pick up our medical officer and one of our mission specialists there, and it's already a secure Cerberus facility. Chief?"
John took a moment to skim over the dossiers, which Cortana had brought up on his helmet's HUD, and nodded. "Agreed."
Lawson returned the nod and turned toward the bridge. "Goldstein? Set a course for the Barn."
"Aye aye, ma'am."
"I'm being pulled off the project?" Inali Renata asked, startled, looking up from her QEC console to the Director's holographic avatar. Her lab was a cross between a surgical ward and a communications center, allowing her to perform operations and check on her subjects both medically here in the Barn and as their handler in the field.
"That's correct," the Director replied. "A situation has developed. The Illusive Man has determined that your talents are required elsewhere."
"But... what about Randall?" she asked. Many of Randall Ezno's implants were all still experimental. He needed regular check ups to ensure their stability, and she was the best qualified to-
"Subject Alpha will be accompanying you," the Director said, his voice slightly frosty. Inali suppressed a wince. While using the subjects' names when interacting with them was expected, anything suggesting actual personal attachment was frowned upon.
"Understood," she said. "Shall I inform Subject Alpha?"
"See to it," the Director said, then cut the communication link.
John was in the armory. After familiarizing himself with the ship, he had taken the time to inspect and familiarize himself with the arsenal Cerberus had made available to him. From what he understood, most of it was fairly basic, off-the-shelf equipment, but The Illusive Man had also assured him that Cerberus was working on their own lines of specialized gear and that he would receive the first shipment off the production lines once they were available.
At the moment, however, he was working on something else: reassembling an M6G magnum he had just cleaned. A few small arms had been transported through with the Dawn, and The Illusive Man had had them sent to the Reach after the mission on Freedom's Progress, along with fabrication schematics which would allow him to keep them supplied with ammunition and replacements as needed. He was going through them, making sure they were in good, working order. It was a mixed bag, and fate had not been kind enough to provide him with a Jackhammer or a Spartan laser, but he would adapt, as he always did. The guns were actually quite comparable to the weapons available here against unshielded targets - in fact, the M6G was more powerful than the local M-3 Predators they had in the armory - but due to their much lower velocities and reliance on bullet mass, they were effectively useless against kinetic barriers.
So much to learn. He'd have to test that theory.
Absent-mindedly, he slapped a loaded magazine into the magnum and held it out, testing its weight. While it couldn't collapse itself the way local weapons did, it was still a pistol and thus small enough to carry without getting in the way. It may be primitive, but there was something to be said for having a back up no one would expect.
"Chief," Cortana's hologram appeared at the terminal in the corner. "We're on our final approach to the Barn."
Randall shifted as he waited in the Barn's hangar bay alongside several crates of weapons. The sudden reassignment was unexpected, and he had long ago learned to be wary of the unexpected. A UT-47 Kodiak flew into the hangar, and out stepped a giant of a man in green armor, followed by a woman in a white jumpsuit.
"Randall Ezno?" the woman queried.
"Yes," he said, nodding.
"I'm Miranda Lawson," she said. "This is the Master Chief. I trust you've been informed of your new assignment?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "Inali's finishing up something in wing C and will be along shortly."
Randall and the Master Chief looked at each other, and the two men sized each other up. He couldn't read much into the Master Chief's body language, but the armor was definitely high end, custom-built, and not just due to size either. Whatever this operation was, it was big, which explained the weapons they were bringing with them. Not only were they bringing a crate of M-29 Incisors, but also a crate of the M-96 Mattock Auto he had been field-testing, now called the Harrier. Still, the weapons the Master Chief was carrying were peculiar, almost... antiquated in their design.
Suddenly, an alarm blared, and they all looked up.
"Warning. Security breach in wing C. Warning. Security breach in wing C."
The Master Chief looked back down at him and asked, "Where's wing C?"
John loped along behind Ezno, the Cerberus agent keeping up a good pace. They had left Lawson to keep the shuttle bay secure and were moving to assist with the security breach in wing C and extract Renata. As Ezno led him down the corridor, John saw a pair of Cerberus troopers rushing up ahead, rounding a corner... only to suddenly fly back, crumpling against the corridor's wall.
"I think we found the problem," Ezno commented dryly as they brought their rifles up to the shoulders.
John paused to identify the creature that came roaring around the corner.
"Chief, be careful," Cortana warned. "That's a krogan. They're at least as tough as Brutes. And they regenerate."
"I'll keep that in mind," he replied calmly as he and Ezno opened fire.
The krogan turned, roared again, and charged at them, apparently ignoring the high velocity rounds piercing his flesh. As his MA5C clicked on an empty chamber, John took a step back, preparing to brace himself to meet the charge, when Ezno gestured with his off-hand. His arm and the krogan both glowed blue, and suddenly, the krogan sailed overhead. John hesitated only for a moment before replacing the empty magazine and opening fire on the helpless, floating krogan.
John looked at Ezno, who seemed to sense the question. "Artificial biotics," he said. "One of the more... successful... upgrades."
John nodded, then noted Ezno eyeing his rifle.
"You sure you want to bring that peashooter into this mess?" Ezno asked.
"I'll be fine," John assured him, then signaled. The two continued their advance. The corridor ended in a chaotic three-way firefight. On one side were Cerberus troopers, some of whom were toting alloy shields. On another were a group of robots which appeared to be more heavily armed and armored than the LOKIs he had seen at Freedom's Progress. The final "side," to use the term loosely, consisted of krogan and two other species John had to take a moment to place. The blue-skinned women were asari, and the hard-shelled aliens that vaguely resembled Elites were turians. The robots, on the other hand...
"Orcus security mechs," she said. "Someone must have hacked them." He cocked an eyebrow. "I'll see what I can do."
Cortana linked into the wireless signal controlling the Orcus mechs and started with a fairly basic probe of the firewalls defending them. Expecting to find an already-cracked system, she was surprised to find a complex and interlocking grid of firewalls and spoofs.
"Well," she murmured to herself, "that's a surprise." Virtually cracking her knuckles and grinning, she added, "Time to get to work, then."
She unleashed a series of bots intended to brute force the firewalls even as she slipped into the background. As she teased out a vulnerable piece of code, she gave a mental smirk.
This was almost too ea-
"Crap!" she cursed as she found herself blocked off. Two firewalls had sprung up between her and the vulnerable piece of code, and three more walled her off from her own hacking bots.
"And you do?" she retorted as she prowled the cage she found herself in. She wasn't truly trapped - indeed, she wasn't even really here to be trapped - but it was unsettling to be found out so quickly. It was clear this was no ordinary hacker.
Cortana was taken aback by that. "You're no hacker," she declared. "You're an AI."
She paused at that. "Now why would an AI try to take over a Cerberus base?"
"'Orders'? What does that even-? Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
John stowed his spent assault rifle and braced. The charging krogan was too close to try to reload. Eight hundred pounds of blood raging krogan slammed into half again as much of SPARTAN plus MJOLNIR, sending John rocking back on his heels, but he held his ground and slugged the krogan in the face.
The krogan didn't even blink.
The staccato sound of gunfire echoed again, and John saw his shields dropping further.
"Working on it, Chief!"
Spartan time kicked in, and John shifted his weight, allowing the krogan to win the contest of strength, instead flipping him over and into the two Orcus mechs that had been shooting at him. He drew his M6G magnum, putting two rounds into the krogan, then turned and put two more rounds into another Orcus, the semi-armor piercing, high explosive rounds lodging in its armor before detonating. The UNSC pistol spat out another round, which punched through the new gap in the mech's armor and then blew apart its innards as it detonated.
John pivoted, bringing the magnum to bear on a pair of turians, putting them down with one round each, before turning his attention to an asari, intending to put her down with the last round in the magazine... only to be interrupted as she blurred, even in Spartan time, leaving a trail of blue energy behind her as she smashed ino his chest with the force of a freight train.
Still, a freight train had nothing on a Hunter, and John only staggered back a step, his shields finally sputtering out. It was enough for the asari to press the advantage, lashing out with glowing blue fists with a deadly combination of speed, power, and skill. John shifted and countered, the two entering a complicated dance of punches, kicks, deflections, and dodges.
John had three decades of combat experience, and it was taking every hard earned edge and trick he'd gathered over that time to keep up with the asari. She landed several biotic-enhanced blows that left shallow dents in his armor, an impressive feat on its own, but not enough to put him down before she overextended herself slightly with an uppercut. Leaning out of the way and getting inside her guard, he launched an open palm strike to her chest that sent her flying. She dented the wall on impact, flaring with biotic energy.
John swiftly unslung his assault rifle and reloading it, letting the empty magazine drop to the floor. Sighting down the rifle in one smooth motion, he opened fire. 7.62x51mm rounds streamed out from the rifle at what the UNSC considered high velocity, peppering the asari and her biotic barrier, but she didn't even seem to notice as she slowly stalked toward him, murder in her eyes. Thirty-two rounds later, the weapon clicked empty again.
"Master Chief! Catch!"
John turned at Ezno's call, catching the thrown rifle and swinging it around. Less than ten rounds later, the asari's barrier flickered and died, and she lunged at him in a desperate attack, her fist glowing with biotic power. John reacted on reflex, bashing the butt of the rifle into the asari's face. Her head snapped back, and she toppled to the ground.
John looked around. The fighting in the area had died down, the aliens subdued or dead, and the Orcus mechs either destroyed or standing at attention.
"Inali!" Ezno called, looking around. "Where's Inali?"
"Chief, bad news," Cortana broke in. "I've tapped into the security surveillance system. When the test subjects broke free, Doctor Renata had to make a break for it. She's in the X1 wing."
Randall had never been in the X1 wing before, but it was easy to navigate, given his familiarity with the rest of the Barn. He still wondered why the Master Chief had even been carrying the antiquated weapons he had tried using, but it wasn't something he was going to worry about, now that he was properly armed with a Harrier taken from one of the malfunctioning Orcus mechs.
The two advanced cautiously, weapons at the ready. Taking point were a handful of Orcus mechs that someone had managed to get under control.
He quickened his pace and brought his hand up to his ear as his comm implant registered. "Inali? I'm here with our new commander. We're on our way."
"Be careful, Randall," came the reply. "Somehow, X1 got loose. I've activated the secondary containment chamber, but I don't think it's going to hold."
Randall broke into a run. "Come on!"
John kept pace with Ezno, who, to his pleasant surprise, was maintaining a speed few non-Spartans would be comfortable with. When the man suddenly put on a burst of speed after apparently getting in touch with Renata, John was still easily able to keep up, even as they brushed past the Orcus mechs.
They emerged into a large room, the center of which was walled off, but judging from the noises within and the dents, the inner walls would not last long.
"Inali!" Ezno called.
John tracked the voice, just as one of the walls in the center of the room shattered, revealing the massive creature within. Presumably, this was Subject X1.
"Ezno, extract Renata," John ordered as he turned his attention to the X1. "I'll deal with this." It was big, no doubt about that, bigger than a Hunter, and its musculature was just as beefy as a Brute, so there was no doubt it would pack a punch. It wore chest straps and gauntlets, and it clear from the blue glow that they were more than just decoration.
The blast of energy that drained his shields a moment later attested to that.
"I thought this world didn't have energy weapons," he mused aloud.
"I think it's some sort of eezo attack," Cortana speculated. "Like a biotic warp, an area of rapidly shifting mass effect fields to rip its target apar-"
John smacked the side of his helmet as he dodged another blast.
John raised the Cerberus rifle to his shoulder and opened fire. Kinetic barriers flared, then collapsed briefly, a round piercing the creature's chest, but it seemed unfazed. John dove aside and ejected the spent heat sink. This time, he aimed for its gauntlets; he had to disarm it.
Kinetic barriers flared again, holding for a moment, before briefly dropping. A round punched through the right gauntlet, and the X1 paused in puzzlement as it shorted out.
At this point, a fuel rod gun or a Jackhammer would have been really useful, and John regretted not bringing one of the M-100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers The Illusive Man had supplied the Reach with.
Lacking heavy weapons, he circled his opponent and opened fire, targeting a likely glowing blue object on its back. Once again, its shields flared, but a round got through before the heat sink reached capacity. It was insane just how quickly this thing's shields recovered. This was going to take forever.
It turned and charged at him, sprinting with surprising speed and smashing aside a section of the wall that was still standing. The sane response, the logical response, would have been to run to the side and get out of its way.
Instead, John charged toward it.
"Chief, what are you doing?!"
He didn't answer as the X1 swung a gigantic fist at him. He leaned back and dropped to his knees, sliding across the floor under the punch. He skidded to a halt at the X1's feet and brought up his rifle, shoving its muzzle right up against the X1's belly. The Harrier bucked in his hands, spitting a stream of hypervelocity rounds directly into the X1's flesh, bypassing its kinetic barriers.
The X1 staggered back, roaring and raising its arms up before bringing them crashing down the floor. John narrowly rolled out of the way and was tossed a few feet as the edge of the metal flooring section bent up from the impact.
"I think you made it mad," Cortana commented.
"Possibly," he allowed as he regained his footing and squared off, facing the X1 again and ejecting the spent heat sink.
"This thing clearly used to be a krogan," she said. "I did mention krogan regenerate, right?"
John grunted in acknowledgement, then broke into a run to his right, circling the X1 as he opened fire again with the Cerberus Harrier. It roared in response and charged at him, forgoing whatever weapons it might still have available. John threw himself forward, tucking and rolling out of its way as it charged past.
He ejected another spent heat sink and continued his run, firing on the X1 as he circled around it. The X1 charged again, and John once again dodged. The pattern repeated itself three more times.
"Chief, you're running out of heat sinks."
"It doesn't appear to be dying."
It was inevitable. An unexpected shift in terrain from the wrecked floor, a slight miscalculation, bad luck. Either way, John was a fraction too slow as the X1 backhanded him, sending him tumbling until he finally stopped against a wall.
He rose to his feet as the X1 charged. He had no time to look for his rifle and instead hurled himself aside at the last second, avoiding the X1's punch as it buried its arm halfway into the wall. He easily evaded its flailing other hand and circled around the creature, finally vaulting on its back and drawing his magnum.
Pressing the muzzle of the UNSC-issue weapon to the base of its skull, he very deliberately squeezed the trigger eight times, sending eight .50-caliber semi-armor piercing high explosive rounds into the X1's head.
Finally, the X1 slumped down.
"Chief, that was crazy."
"I thought you liked crazy."
The Illusive Man sat in his office and took a long drag from his cigarette. Within moments, the expected hologram materialized before him, eyes blazing, glaring at him.
"You set us up!" Cortana accused. "Pitting me against UDI? Staging a security breach and threatening our medical officer? What was that supposed to accomplish?"
He blew out a puff of smoke, tapping the ashes of his cigarette away. "UDI needed a push to develop her abilities," he said, "and moreover, I need to be sure the Chief has what it takes to accomplish the mission."
"So why leave me in the dark?" she demanded.
"Because I need to know you can do what we designed you to do, Cortana," he answered. He brought his cigarette to his lips again and inhaled deeply. "I'd say you passed." After blowing out another puff of smoke, he asked, "The Chief?"
She continued to glare at him for a long moment, before relenting. "He reacted as expected, took one of the conventional assault rifles and pistols we manufactured instead of the mass accelerators," she reported. "The magnum's semi-armor piercing high explosive rounds were more effective than anticipated - I've forwarded you the data - but I think he's learned his lesson."
The Illusive Man nodded. "Excellent. And his performance?"
"Significantly better than projected. I am unable to determine why." She paused, obviously wanting to say something. The Illusive Man waited patiently. After a long moment, she asked, "Was that the purpose of the simulations?"
The Illusive Man leaned back, taking another long drag from his cigarette, then slowly breathing it out as he collected his thoughts. "With the same genome, the same augmentations, and the same training, he survived where his predecessors didn't," he answered finally. "We can't clone luck, Cortana, but we can select for it."
Based on some of the feedback I've gotten, it seems I wasn't blatant enough about what was going on with regard to the Chief and Cortana in the first chapter. I hope the above makes things clearer.
As for those who don't want the Chief to betray Cerberus or have Cerberus be indoctrinated... well... I'm keeping my options open. Then again, is it betrayal if they betrayed you first? Can you even betray someone you have no loyalty to? The Chief's loyalty, after all, is to humanity, not Cerberus, a distinction some characters have difficulty grasping at times.