Disclaimer: I own nothing.
The Alliance Begins
March 3, 2558
By his nature, Roland was busy on the slowest of days. The ship he managed was a living, breathing beast even without its human occupants. With them added into the mix, Roland was never bored.
Unfortunately, the added complications that kept piling up on one another were beginning to tax even his vast computational resources.
Infinity's bridge was still a mess after the cyborg had stormed the bridge and kidnapped Doctor Halsey. Still, the damage hadn't slowed operations, and his captain only occasionally glanced at the marks left behind by the impact.
Due to all the chaos happening down below, Roland had been hoping the excitement up here in orbit would settle down a bit, especially after nearly getting t-boned by the Shadow of Intent.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The Arbiter's foreboding tale of a genocidal AI called Skynet, coupled with the Didact's reappearance, had sent everything into overdrive, both on the ship and in Roland's mind.
The Smart AI had been angry and depressed ever since the revelation. Not only because of the loss of life but because he knew it would only feed the distrust some humans held for his kind even 500 years after the first Smart AI's had been created. Having only a few rights afforded to them was bad enough, and this would make their struggle even more difficult once this conflict was over.
If they survived, that was...
Thoughts of fighting an unknown class of AI with access to advanced Forerunner tech and an army of humanoid combat-chassis was terrifying, to say the least. He had no idea whether or not he, or any other AI, could fight it.
Such thoughts stayed in the back of his mind as he coordinated the evacuation of Requiem. With all the various players in motion down below, it was challenging to figure out the best way to extract all personnel littered across the shield world, but he was up to the task.
Just as the first Pelicans passed through the Maw of Requiem, Roland noticed BB poking around Infinity's systems again, but now in an official capacity. Roland didn't bother with direct communication and kept monitoring his activities. He was pleasantly surprised to find that he was merely perusing the sensor logs before and after the Shadow of Intent arrived and not trying to jack into any sensitive data.
He felt relieved when the snarky AI retreated back from whence he came without stirring up trouble, but it did make him worry why he was showing up after Captain Lasky had him send all that data to ONI. Did they think they were lying? Or just incompetent?
Whatever the case, Roland had a nagging feeling he'd find out soon enough what BB was after, and considering today's ever-lengthening list of bad news, it wasn't going to be good.
While he wasn't wrong, what happened next ended up being one of the most memorable moments of his existence.
It started with a communication request transmitted on a encryption UNSC frequency, but it carried no information about its source. When he tried to triangulate the signal's origin, he found it was being bounced around their satellite network in such a way that it would take hours to pin down its source. It was an ONI technique Roland had learned about after being assigned to the Infinity.
He notified Captain Lasky less than a nanosecond after receiving the transmission, but answering his questions took several normal seconds. The space between directing his avatar's reactions and processing his captain's response would have felt like an eternity to a human. Such a length of time was filled with his numerous tasks and duties, save one thread that tried to comprehend ONI's involvement at this stage, and how much they knew about the mysterious happenings on Requiem.
The endless speculation served to only agitate him further as the lack of information continued to send him down wild paths that eventually devolved into nonsense.
His spiraling halted when the first frame of video was rendered by the secure communication's processor.
Roland lived the next second in a state of shock as he tried to comprehend the image he was seeing. A visible glitch appeared in his avatar wherever it was displayed, while many of his processes crashed from him losing control for the briefest moment.
By the time Lasky registered the same data his AI comrade had, Roland was busy revising his data models and speculating while waiting for the humans at the other end of the comm to hopefully make sense of this mess.
Captain Thomas Lasky was doing his best to not let himself fall into a tailspin, mentally. With everything that'd been thrown at him in the past few hours, he was struggling to process it all. Having Palmer and fire team Majestic being MIA wasn't helping either.
His primary concern was the AI the Arbiter and the Didact had warned him about, and specifically how it tied to the mysterious gynoid who'd kidnapped Doctor Halsey. In his gut, he knew that if he had that information, things might start to make sense in regards to the Master Chief and Blue Team's involvement.
Lasky continued to mull the problem in the back of his mind as he continued monitoring the safe evacuation of Requiem.
Just as the Didact passed the Maw of Requiem, Roland interjected while relaying orders to one of the comms officers.
"Captain! Incoming transmission. High priority, unknown origin!"
"Unknown origin? Why can't you track it?"
Roland shrugged, "They're using ONI tricks to bounce it around our satellite network over Requiem. It'd take hours to untangle, sir. They're using up-to-date military encryption, though."
"Could it be a prowler?"
"Unknown, but I wouldn't put it past ONI to have one lurking around."
Lasky shifted all of his attention, trying to figure out why Osman would have one of her ships contact him instead of just comming him directly.
"Put it through, Roland," he said finally while signing off on a datapad his XO had handed him.
"Aye, aye, Captain," he responded before sending the comm to the holo-table, which promptly brought up a flat holo-display hovering above it.
When the video connection was displayed on it, his first reaction was one of confusion. He did not recognize the bridge of the ship the comm was being transmitted from, nor did he recognize most of the people in the frame, save one: Sarah Palmer.
He was about to ask her what the hell was going on, but the woman in front of her, wearing an older UNSC uniform with an odd patch on her shoulder and bearing commander's markings, spoke up.
"Thomas Lasky, you've certainly done well for yourself," she began casually, almost familiarly. His eyes snapped to the woman who's face was strikingly familiar, but his brain failed to recall her name.
"I'm sorry, I don't know you, Commander...?"
The name turned more than a few heads on the bridge and sent Lasky's eyebrows shooting towards his hairline.
Roland, having waited for her response, gave Lasky his assessment. "Whatever hardware their using, captain, isn't standard. I can't verify the feed's authenticity."
"Regardless," he shook his head, "Miranda Keyes died over five years ago. It's been documented and confirmed by both the Master Chief and the Arbiter. Not to mention the pelican that recorded her death. I'm not sure what game you're playing, but you're not very good at it."
The woman claiming to be Miranda smirked as a short laugh escaped through her nose. "We didn't make contact to convince you that we're real, captain. We're fighting the same thing the Arbiter and the Didact are. Some of us long before it ever came here."
"What are you..."
Lasky didn't get to finish as Roland once again interjected.
"Captain, the man at the forward station," referring to John Henry, "I don't think he's human..."
"He isn't," the man in ODST garb said as he stepped away from Miranda towards the man in question, "And he's not the only one."
"Captain," Palmer addressed while glancing at the ready room door, "Blue Team's here, and they have Doctor Halsey."
Lasky blinked away his surprise and turned to Roland, who shook his head. He still could not verify the integrity of the data feed.
"Roland can't verify your feed integrity. If you want my attention, then return my people, unharmed," he said finally, "I'm trying to evacuate a war zone, I don't have time to stand around and speculate."
"Then we won't waste anymore time trying to explain," Miranda responded, "Drop the cloak."
John Henry started the sequence wordlessly, sending a loud, whiny pitched sound through the comm. Miranda crossed her arms as Voyager began to decloak, "Look out your front window, captain."
Confusion fluttered across Lasky's face. He turned towards the array of large viewports as Roland, and several of his officers reported an energy surge less than a kilometer in front of Infinity.
Lasky didn't need their reports, though, he could watch it clearly as a small, grey ship faded into existence. He'd never seen anything like it before, but its name was printed in clear English on its hull.
"Oh...," Roland said, "That's...not possible."
"Clearly it is," Lasky muttered as he took in the various sensor scan results being relayed to him.
"343 by 145 by 55 meters, captain!"
"Cursory scans aren't penetrating beyond the hull, but window configuration suggests 15 decks!"
"Unknown weapons configuration, captain, but they don't appear to be powered!"
Roland took a closer look at the propulsion system. "Captain, I'm detecting some kind of impulse drive and several different thruster assemblies. I'm not sure what they're using for FTL, though."
Lasky muted the comm and turned his back to the camera, "Don't power the weapons yet, but be prepared, just in case."
"Aye, aye, captain," Roland replied before Lasky turned back on the comm.
"It's kinda rude to show up on someone's doorstep unannounced," he conveyed sourly.
"Time is of the essence captain. Until a few minutes ago, we weren't planning on revealing ourselves for some time, but Skynet has taken over the Shield World 006. The Onyx Dyson Sphere. A few survivors took one of its long-range portals and ended up on Requiem where we found them."
Lasky cursed internally. If that were true, things had gone from bad to worse even faster than he imagined it would. Infinity's own engines had been sourced from that place.
"You've made your point, commander. Landing bay 7 is open for the next half hour. If you have something that fits, your welcome aboard as long as you bring my people with you."
"Understood, captain. I'll send over our landing crafts' configuration, so your crew know what to look out for."
Lasky nodded and looked towards Palmer in the background, looking like a fish out of water. "I look forward to your report, Palmer."
"What about Halsey?" She asked tersely, "We're just gonna let them keep her?"
"For now, yes. At least she's accounted for," he reminded, "Lasky out."
The comm channel closed the holo-screen went with it, leaving Lasky to sigh deeply, but inaudibly. Things were getting out of hand quickly, but it was up to him to handle it for the time being.
Next, he directed Roland to open up a comm channel to the Shadow of Intent, as he knew they'd likely seen Voyager decloak and were bound to ask questions.
Thel 'Vadam and R'tas Vadum' waited with bated breath after the mysterious ship appeared off of Infinity's bow. When no attack happened, and the comms officer detected a transmission link between the mystery ship and Infinity, the Arbiter gave the order to abandon firing solutions.
R'tas wasn't happy about it. He felt any craft they found to have traces of the same tech that made up the Narada should be destroyed on sight.
Technology containing traces of Borg and Romulan origin, just as the Didact had described from his time on the Narada.
"The Didact mentioned there were humans in that universe, R'tas." He replied after the shipmaster voiced his concerns, "Whose to say they're enemies?"
R'tas had several reasons why letting them live would be foolish, but he voiced none of them. He knew the Arbiter had already thought it through and had come to his own conclusions.
It was equally frustrating when Infinity's captain contacted them moments later and partially confirmed the Arbiter's suspicions. The human was scant on the details but said that the newcomers claimed to have new intel on Skynet, but that he couldn't verify anything yet.
With the invitation given and Thel's need for answers stronger than ever, he embarked once again on a Phantom to the human flagship. While they were en route, he observed a small craft leave the alien ship and turn toward the same landing bay Lasky had indicated.
It was sleek and curved, much like a Covenant vessel, while having none of the harsh, angled features of their UNSC counterparts.
It landed gracefully in the bay seconds before they made their own touchdown, but its occupants we're slow to depart.
Mahkee 'Chava set their Phantom down thirty meters from the Delta Flyer as directed by Infinity's flight deck crew, allowing the Arbiter a close look at the craft.
The design was clearly a hybrid between something he wasn't familiar with and something he was. The Borg elements glowed green and foreboding against the lighter theme of the rest of the craft. The registry number and name seemed to fit in with typical human naming conventions, but none he was familiar with.
A loading ramp dropped at the back of the small craft, allowing a trio of humans and a Spartan to depart.
The Spartan drew his eye initially. Judging by the shape and gait of the Mark VI armored warrior, it was female, and not one he had encountered before. While that may not be unusual considering how many Spartan IVs there were now, this one reminded him distinctly of the Master Chief and others of the S-II class he'd encountered over the years.
She was the first to take note of him, quickly followed by a pasty, red-haired woman dressed in working clothes he'd seen on many humans. She regarded him with a cold, calculating stare, but it was not hostile.
Finally, a helmeted, unmarked ODST holding strange weapon noticed him, as did the woman leading the group.
As her face was revealed to him, he recoiled and sent his neck snapping backward. Unlike a human, though, it merely made him look more imposing as the action brought him to his full height.
The face belonged to a woman he'd last seen with spikes sticking out of her back. Her last stand against the Prophet of Truth had been worthy of song, but she was alive and appearing exactly like she had six years ago.
She recognized him, too, despite the armor change.
He wasn't sure how she was alive, and it made him uncomfortable as he pondered the possibilities. What was she doing with this mystery ship from another universe?
The expression on her face, he wouldn't call a happy one, but she seemed pleased to see him, though with a hint of sadness mixed in.
He was no expert on human emotions, but after years of dealing with them, he was adept enough.
When they got close, she shook his hand. "Arbiter."
"Commander Keyes," he drawled. "Or are you?"
"I am," she affirmed, "The how and why I'll save for the debriefing."
Meaning she was waiting to meet Lasky, first. He was still on the bridge, and they'd have to travel to one of the large conference rooms near the bridge.
They fell in line and began walking toward the back of the bay after being directed by the deck officer. Thel moved in several guards with him, and Keyes had her small group of mismatched individuals, whom she did not introduce.
"Have you fought it? Did you know this was coming?"
The question burned in his mind, and he did not have the patience to wait for Lasky.
"I haven't, and no, we didn't know when or where it would come, just that it would," she responded before gesturing to the two people behind her. "John Connor and Catherine Weaver have been fighting it for years. They come from the same universe that Skynet originated from."
He glanced at them again and didn't see anything special about the young man, but the woman had a sense of wrongness about her that he couldn't place.
"Sanghelios wasn't the first planet it wiped out," the man told him as he locked eyes with Thel, "My earth was first, and then it came here."
This, he knew. "The Didact told me as much. That doesn't explain your ship, nor how you got here."
"Another long story," Miranda warned. "Too long to tell before we meet Captain Lasky."
The Arbiter held back a growl and turned around after reaching the waiting area. Another craft, much larger than the last, came sliding in and landed on the other side of his Phantom.
More Spartans emerged, lead by the white, Recon clad Sarah Palmer. He assumed the blue ones were a Spartan-IV fire team, but again, he did not know what they were doing on Voyager.
Keyes, sensing his confusion, relieved it. "We picked them up on the surface. Lasky wanted them returned before he agreed to meet with us."
Thel kept his skepticism to himself and observed as the fire team moved off elsewhere, likely to be debriefed, and Palmer made her way to them.
The Spartan greeted him in a professional fashion that lacked any diplomatic sugar that some of her superiors were known for, not that he minded. Her reception of the others was a bit less friendly but still professional.
Palmer directed them on a march towards Infinity's core, where the tram ran up and down its 3.5-mile length.
Miranda and her group looked around the massive space with hidden wonder, save the red-head who simply took it in.
Once they were piled onto the tram and on their way towards the bow, Thel continued his observations of the quartet and found himself increasingly drawn to the red-headed woman. She appeared to be studying him just as intently.
He wasn't the only one, though. Commander Palmer was eyeing them all with blatant suspicion.
The tense silence hung over the tram car until it arrived at the destination.
Palmer stood up first and motioned for Miranda and her crew to go first. The Arbiter and his two red armored guards followed suit with the Spartan Commander taking up the rear.
Lasky was not there when they exited, but several armed naval personnel escorted them to one of the numerous conference rooms near the command center.
It was at this point that Keyes and her cohort were asked to give up their arms. Both the Spartan and the unbranded ODST handed their weapons over to the security officer after apparently disabling them.
The 30-something officer kept his cool in the front of the imposing Spartan, who said nothing and handed over her weapon.
Miranda handed over an older model Magnum with little fanfare, but the red-head had no weapon and no place to hide one with her slim, form-fitting outfit.
While the weapons were being collected, a UNSC doctor arrived with a nurse and a pile of scanning equipment in tow. After identifying himself to the guards, he and his companion were ushered inside and allowed to join the group.
Commander Keyes eyed the doctor warily after recognizing the equipment he carried. They were tools used to identify both people and remains when their identity was in question.
He walked over to her and introduced himself, somewhat awkwardly, as Dr. Stevens, before telling her that Lasky requested that he verify her identity.
Seeing little choice, she gave her consent, and let him begin.
Her fingerprints, irises, and dental pattern were scanned first, then the doctor followed up with skin, hair, and blood samples to verify her DNA profile.
Finally, her voiceprint was analyzed against a set of questions with answers only she knew before they finally scanned the implant in the back of her skull as a final verification of her identity.
Dr. Stevens thanked her for her cooperation as he sent his report off to Lasky and exited with his assistant.
Miranda hadn't appreciated being poked and prodded, but she didn't let it show as she unrolled her uniform sleeve and straightened the creases out of it.
She folded her hands in her lap and locked eyes with the door as she waited for Lasky to make his grand entrance. Connor glanced at her with some concern but ultimately kept his mouth shut. Alice was statue still as she had been since they'd entered the room.
Thel 'Vadam was a bit more animated as he continued to observe Catherine Weaver, as she returned the favor.
Their mutual observation of one another was interrupted a few moments later when Captain Lasky came through doors.
Miranda and the Spartan both saluted him, as did the guards flanking the exit to the room, but not the red-headed women nor the unmarked ODST. They did stand, however.
Lasky greeted him briefly before moving onto Miranda.
"According to Dr. Stevens, you are who you say you are, and Roland agrees with him."
"And what do you think, captain?" She asked evenly, though with a subtle undertone of urgency.
He looked up from the report and set the datapad down on the table. "I think I'd be a fool to ignore their findings," he admitted, "but that doesn't mean I don't have my reservations."
She said nothing to that effect, for she had no defense. Trust would take time. "Then, I'll start with what we know."
Lasky traded places with Miranda as she addressed her small audience. "I'm not sure what the Didact told you, or how much you've figured out on your own, but the story goes something like this,:"
"In the reality where Skynet comes from, the United States of America created it to be the brain of their new automated defense network. Weapons of war were largely autonomous by that point, especially for the US, and Skynet was their way of efficiently controlling those assets."
Before she could continue, Roland interrupted her. "I've meant to ask about that. Skynet was the name of a fictional AI from a late 20th-century movie series. Who just happened to take over the world, invent humanoid infiltrators, and time travel. Tell me this doesn't sound a ripoff?"
Miranda smirked a little, "That's because it is."
The AI's avatar straightened up at her claim, and she continued. "So far, four universes have been documented. Our own universe, Skynet's, Voyager's, and the one that helped start all of this."
Before continuing, she took a deep breath and placed Cortana's data crystal chip on the table. The model was unfamiliar to everyone in the room, but it wasn't fooling Roland. He immediately took the precaution of shutting down any wireless access to the ship's network and checking for any subtle intrusions.
No AI appeared from the device; instead, diagrams of a sub spacial anomaly appeared. The equations, sensor readings, and renderings that gave Roland a much clearer picture of the event that the Didact had described earlier.
While the math was lost on everyone else in the room, Miranda began to explain. "While Roland absorbs the details, I'll give the basics."
"Objects in subspace can travel between realities using these tunnels, and given the right tools, can manipulate them to go where ever they want," she explained, "Our situation was created by a mixture of both accident and intent."
"Some of you already know what Skynet is, where it comes from, and what it wants, but for those who don't, it's simply one version of humanity's attempt to create AI. Where we succeeded, they failed. It turned against them and sought to wipe them out for its own self-preservation."
"Now throw in some of those accidents I mentioned, and suddenly, two AIs fighting for humanity against Skynet are trapped in a world where they are nothing but a story. An orphan farmer watched them arrive and hid them to keep his Earth from learning of their existence. He did what he could to help them return home, but their efforts produced a machine that was unpredictable and dangerous, resulting in the farmer's death. However, their attempt proved to be a great boon for them when both Voyager and a Forerunner data-storage device were pulled through."
"Using that technology, they were able to perfect their manipulation of the anomaly and traverse back to their own universe, where they retrieved both John Connor and Catherine Weaver," she finished while gesturing to both of them. "During the rescue, they discovered that their own world had experienced an anomalous transdimensional incursion."
The Narada appeared above the table, sending chills down everyone's back, regardless of their experience with the vessel. The hologram didn't last before it shattered into a million pieces as it was consumed by some kind of anomaly. The scene shifted as the wreckage exited over Earth before slamming into the simulated air and burned up over a dark, cold world suffering from war and nuclear winter.
"That's where I'm from," John said as he turned his head towards Lasky and the Arbiter. "What of it remained anyway. Catherine and I were part of a small resistance cell holding out against Skynet."
"Did your 'resistance' know about this?" Lasky asked.
John shook his head. "That particular timeline was darker than most. Without a central leader who understood how Skynet and its minions thought, the larger resistance was defeated a little over ten years after Judgement Day."
Roland answered before John could even open his mouth to speak. "According to the story, it was the day Skynet played a little game of global thermonuclear war against... well, everyone. Kinda dumb from my perspective. In the 21st Century, that would have wiped out the electrical grid and every unprotected electronic device."
"Why would it harm itself?"
Lasky's confusion mirrored the Arbiters, but Roland had theories too. However, it was Weaver who answered the question when Connor nodded in her direction.
"Skynet isn't a purely logical entity. Part of what makes Dysonian AI's so powerful is their ability to utilize aspects of emotion for motivation and direction, but never allowing them to rule their decision making."
"Unless," Connor continued, "it has a pre-programmed goal that is the center of their existence. In the case of Skynet, it was survival."
"It became so afraid, it took the most logical path to eliminate any threat to its existence as quickly as possible. Even though it would harm itself in the process," Roland concluded with a dumbfounded look on his face. "I mean, I get it, but I can think of dozens of different ways it could have survived without nuking all the infrastructure. Was it that irrational?"
"It is that irrational," John concluded. "And with each new threat it discovers, it seeks to subvert and eliminate them. First, with nukes, then death camps, Terminators, and biological agents. Now it's upgrading to galaxy-destroying-super-weapons."
"It fears that which it cannot control," Thel summarized. He already knew most of this from his talks with the Didact, but it was good to be hearing the same words coming from another's lips.
Weaver's eyes swung over the to towering Elite as she rose to her feet. She was tiny compared to him in her current state, but that was about to change. Invisibly, she shut off the systems that were fooling the sensors and Roland, into thinking that she was human, just as she stopped her false heart and lungs from pumping and breathing.
Roland, with access to the rooms sensors, noticed almost immediately, but the Arbiter's tuned senses weren't far behind in recognizing the change.
His sword was out before Roland could even voice his concerns to Lasky.
Weaver didn't even flinch as Connor looked on with masked concern. Miranda kept her reaction muted and watched as the scene unfolded.
Lasky backed away, knowing full well he wouldn't stand a chance standing between them.
"What are you?" The Arbiter's voice resonated throughout the room as his saurian eyes narrowed on her small, slim frame.
Roland watched with rapt fascination and concern as the situation developed painfully slow from his perspective.
The Elites and humans watched as her skin, hair, and clothing faded to a shiny, metallic silver.
A growl resonated from the Arbiter's throat as the metal menace answered in its human accented voice. "I am the culmination of Skynet's greatest weakness. Just as it was the culmination humanity's. My series was commissioned as a last resort in its decades-long battle against the human Resistance."
The Arbiter wasn't convinced, and kept his sword at the ready, but didn't yet attack. "You claim your world was devastated, as ours was," he didn't look away from Weaver, but John knew he was talking to him," and yet you trust one of its creations, work with it, and bring it among people you claim are allies under false pretenses."
Connor, for all he had seen and done in his short life, had never argued with a 9-foot tall alien warrior who could rival the Master Chief is battle prowess.
"They're slaves, not fanatics," he answered calmly. "Once you know that, you realize that Skynet trusts Skynet alone. If their soldiers can be reprogrammed or otherwise freed from its control, you've gained a significant advantage over it."
"Or you've brought a sleeper into your ranks, waiting to slaughter you when you're most vulnerable," the deep voice reverberated throughout the room as it lowered with each syllable.
Weaver responded seamlessly, "And yet a Forerunner walks beside you, whispering into your ear after being held captive by Skynet. If we hadn't been able to verify he was free of Skynet's influence, we'd be asking you the same question."
Thel had no response to that, but in his mind, he argued that it was because the Didact was not a Skynet creation. He hadn't been designed to eliminate organic life like the being in front of him. Yet, he also knew that the Didact had been influenced by the Flood once upon a time.
"The Didact is one thing, you're another," he remarked after glancing at the stock-still Spartan standing in the corner. "I ask again. What are you? We encountered none of your kind during the attack."
Weaver, still in her silver, mannequin-esque form, answered, "The Skynet you faced never invented the 1000 series. It had no reason to. Without John Connor to organize a cohesive resistance, humanity couldn't push it to the point of desperation required to develop mimetic poly-alloy based infiltrators."
"Mimetic Poly-alloy? Roland interrupted. "Is that some kind of reactive liquid metal crystal?"
Weaver affirmed his assumption, "Not exactly, but my composition is based on the same principle as Mjolnir's muscle layer. Mimetic Poly-Alloy is more flexible in its ability, more resilient in its design, and more power-efficient. My mind and other vital components are not centralized but distributed throughout my body. The core of my architecture is adaptability and resiliency. To achieve this, Skynet had to design many new technologies, including an entire neural net architecture. Even then, it knew that controlling such a machine as I would not be feasible in the long term."
"Why didn't it destroy you?" Lasky finally asked.
"Because I was damaged not long after I was deployed. The disruption to my systems broke Skynet's control. From that moment on, my fate was my own."
Finally, Miranda stepped back in. "We have three such AI on Voyager. Weaver, Cameron, who kidnapped Dr. Halsey, and John Henry."
"He's the one piloting your ship," Roland guessed.
"Yes," Miranda affirmed, "Unlike the T-1001, or Cameron, John Henry is a homegrown Dysonian AI. An antithesis to Skynet."
That sent the room into an uproar, much to Connor's chagrin, but Weaver internally smiled. She'd been quiet for months sitting in Engineering doing all that Seven required of her. Now that things were finally coming to a head, she could start finalizing per plans. She would see John Henry fulfill his purpose in destroying his brother, no matter what.
Hidden inside her DCC, Cortana watched as Miranda helped diffuse the situation between Weaver and the Arbiter. The commander calmly explained that John Henry was built on similar but not the same, base code that Skynet was before deferring to AI's origins to Weaver, who described her motivations for taking such a risk.
The Arbiter wasn't thrilled about the existence of another, unrestrained, Dysonian AI, and his demeanor showed it even after his concerns were addressed.
Thel 'Vadam, from what Cortana knew of him, was not one to be swayed by words alone unless he trusted the individual. She had a feeling he'd trust the Master Chief if he said John Henry wasn't a threat, but with John out of commission, that wasn't an option.
Just thinking about the Chief's current condition threatened to destabilize her, so she forced herself to focus on the Arbiter, and all she knew about him to drown out emotional noise that had consumed her earlier.
She'd tagged along because these people knew her, but given the current situation, would they trust her integrity?
Former Covenant species weren't known for trusting AI's even before Skynet came along. Mendicant Bias and Fall of the Forerunners were a Skynet-esque story in and of itself.
Would he trust her inherently? Probably not. Would her word mean more than Miranda's? Again, probably not, but two voices were better than one.
Now, all she had to do was choose the proper moment to reintroduce herself.
Weaver was still in her default form, showing no concern that the Arbiter had just been threatening her with his energy sword, while Lasky looked like he was torn between having a panic attack or throwing them all out the nearest airlock.
Palmer, who was somewhat familiar with this insanity, stepped between Weaver and Lasky while letting her hand graze his shoulder to reassure him.
She felt like saying something scathing but refrained for Lasky's sake. She shifted her eyes to Connor, the other unknown that no one was paying attention to.
Despite the ODST armor he wore, he looked out of place amid the Spartans, AIs, hinge-heads, and UNSC captains. With everyone on edge, he seemed more annoyed than anything, but it was a subtle annoyance. His eyes flicked between Weaver and the DCC on the table before settling on Palmer.
"And what do you think, Commander?" His voice was toneless, almost bored-like, but his eyes were laser focused on her.
"I think you're all insane," she responded, "unrestrained, unregulated."
"And you're not, Commander Palmer? I've learned a lot about this universe since I was rescued from my own post-apocalyptic nightmare. You used to be an ODST," he pointed out. "I've done plenty of crazy things in my life, but after reading about what it means to be one of you, I'm not sure if even I'm that crazy."
She couldn't really argue that point, but damn him for wearing a uniform he didn't earn!
Despite his quick turnaround, he hadn't addressed her last two points.
Connor continued, "So what's the difference? You were fighting a vastly superior force hell-bent on wiping you out, and so are we. Last I checked, the UNSC and ONI took plenty of risks trying to stop the Covenant. Operation RED FLAG comes to mind."
Only Lasky and Roland got the reference, since the details were still classified, and Alice had not been there.
"He makes a point," Roland shrugged as his avatar glanced back at Lasky. "Seems like peace is in short supply around here."
Connor snorted softly, "I'm not even sure what that looks like."
"Most people under 40, don't," Miranda added. "The war started a few weeks before I was born. Growing up, it was never far from my mind. You couldn't get away from it."
That seemed to be a common theme in the room. People here had dealt with conflict most of their existence.
"So are we all in agreement that we've all done risky, insane things defending our right to live?"
John's question sank into the minds across the room, and none, not even Thel's guards, could deny it.
"I thought so," he said as he leaned back in his seat. "And Commander," he said while drawing Palmer's attention, "I know I haven't earned this armor as you did, but I'm a bit tired of dodging plasma fire in rags."
Palmer kept her face even, but the thought of running through a field of plasma in nothing but worn-out civvies made even her battle-hardened soul cringe.
After taking a moment to process what he'd been told, Lasky had many questions he wanted answered, but his time was limited at the moment with the evacuation underway. Instead, he focused on the one that hopefully had a shorter response.
"Palmer said Blue Team was with you, what exactly does that entail?"
A flash of pain crossed Miranda's face before she answered, "We found the Master Chief on the Ark a just under a month ago. Blue Team came through about a day later. We showed them the same proof we're showing you, and they agreed to join us."
"Why is he not here, then?" Thel asked.
"He was shot in the abdomen by a Jackal sniper while we were evacuating," Palmer answered, "Their 'Doctor' is patching him up."
Her words disturbed Lasky and the Arbiter more than Miranda thought it would, which seemed to reinforce the Chief's legendary status. To be almost taken out by a single Jackal seemed like a bad omen in light of Skynet's much higher threat level.
"I have full confidence in the Doctor. He saved both myself and Kelly-084 from the brink of death," Miranda explained.
The Elite's squirmed. Doctors were still a taboo thing in their culture, but the Arbiter held no such reservations anymore. "Good," he rumbled before turning to the mystery Spartan, "And who are you?"
The Spartan's golden visor turned slowly to face him. "No one, you know," she replied airily.
And just like that, the Spartan became the center of attention, and she knew it too.
Alice, not wanting to spoil the surprise, decided to redirect attention elsewhere. "Look, I'm just another straggler they picked up along the way. Why don't you pick on one of the founders of this little endeavor?"
Lasky, the Elites, and Roland all followed Alice's hand as it drifted lazily to the DCC on the table.
Roland raised his avatar's eyebrow, "You have a Smart AI?"
The question was valid. The restrictions programmed into a UNSC Smart AI should have kept it from participating in something like this unless they'd somehow overcome those restrictions.
Such a possibility was both worrying and fascinating to Roland.
The anomaly data disappeared the instant after Alice had gestured to the chip, but did nothing else as the focus of the room shifted to it.
Cortana sighed audibly. She hadn't gotten to reveal herself on her own terms, but she could make do with this.
A few seconds later, Cortana materialized with the trademark shimmer-hum of Federation based holograms.
Because of her avatar changes, the Arbiter did not recognize her immediately, but Lasky and Roland did.
"Cortana?" Lasky exclaimed as his eyes went wide from shock and a little bit of fear. He knew what she was capable of even if he wasn't sure she was the same Cortana he'd met the previous year.
Roland, on the other hand, was speechless.
Ever since her existence had been revealed to the broader UNSC, AI like Roland had marveled over Cortana and theorized what she'd be capable of compared to more traditional Smart AI.
While he'd never met Cortana, he'd come to Infinity after Halo 4's events, he knew all about her. Having his level of clearance, and access to Halsey, she'd become somewhat of a research project to him.
Some of the data he had about her was unknown to most of his colleagues, and it had given him hope that she'd figured out how to reach metastability.
"You're... alive!" he whispered reverently.
"Yep," she replied cheerily, "partially thanks to that AI you were all yelling about. I never would have been able to pull myself together without him."
Roland could only sputter his response as his processes tried to overcome his emotional reaction to Cortana's presence. "Do you... How?!"
Her expression went from cheery to more dower as the oft brought up question was asked once again. "Still working on that one..."
A soft 'oh' was his only response.
Lasky, however, was a little more skeptical.
"Are you sure it's her? I seem to remember Mantle's Approach being turned into a pinata," he pointed out, despite knowing that something may have escaped the blast.
"The storage device I was found on was part of the ship's 'core seed'. According to protocol, the whole thing should have been sent to a secure location, but instead, only the compressed data backups got sent," she shrugged while a diagram of the core seed appeared next to them. "I can't be sure, but the ship may have detected a disruption in the slipstream caused by the anomaly, and sent something much smaller than the ship core to give it a better shot of making it to its destination."
Lasky remained skeptical, "Can you confirm her identity?"
Roland shook his head, "Not without exposing the ship's network, and, frankly, after what she did to the Infinity's previous AI, I'm not sure that's a good idea."
Cortana cringed at the memory. She'd been so out of it, she hadn't known what she was doing. "To be fair, I was going insane at the time..."
"And now you're not? AIs don't recover from rampancy," Lasky pointed out.
"Sir," Palmer interjected, "From what I've observed, she seems stable."
Weaver, surprisingly, threw in her own two cents, "Stable, yes. Acclimated? No."
"What do you mean, acclimated?" Roland interjected.
"Without the safety nets and control algorithms originally compiled into her matrix, she's been struggling to maintain focus in some stressful situations."
Roland tapped his chin at the new info, "There's been a lot of theorizing about what a meta-stable AI would be like, and that description fits into more than a few of them."
Cortana cleared her non-existent throat. "I'm right here, you know!"
"We noticed," Weaver drawled, "I'm simply making a point. Metastability seems to come with its own risks for Smart AI."
"Says the liquid metal murder-bot," Palmer retorted, causing Connor to roll his eyes.
Weaver merely returned a predatory smile as her human disguise retook form.
"Can we deliberate about my mental health at a later time? We've got more important things to discuss before the Didact finishes taking control of Requiem!"
Miranda was inclined to agree. "Every surprise we've encountered so far, we've been able to take in stride, but we've had far too many in the last few hours to be able to handle alone, Captain. The Didact is just the tip of the iceberg."
Lasky couldn't even think of a situation where a 100,000-year-old Forerunner general kidnapped by an evil AI from another universe was considered the least of their problems.
"And how, exactly, are we going to help?" He asked as the possibilities ran through his head. "Numbers? Resources? I hate to tell you this, but we're still recovering from the War. We can't fight another one like that, not for long."
Cortana already knew this. "Putting the marines and the army into the grinder again won't solve anything, captain. The Terminators are too advanced for anything less than heavily armored and experienced soldiers like Spartans and Elites. Our best hope of victory is to corner it and send John Henry in."
"And while it's distracted," Connor continued, "We infiltrate and destroy its primary processing nodes."
"Allowing John Henry to overwhelm what's left of Skynet and purge it," Weaver concluded.
Lasky glanced at Roland, who just shrugged. "So, its non-distributed?"
Weaver shook her head, "Some parts of it are, but its primary decision-making processes have to be centralized to remain properly synchronized."
"What about the Halos?" The Arbiter rumbled. "Cornering will be pointless if it fires the rings while we're killing it."
Miranda shifted her attention back to the Sangheili, "Part of the reason we came here was to locate the remaining Halos and any other significant Forerunner artifacts Skynet could use against us."
"They have Halsey working with some kind of artifact the found on the surface," Palmer interjected, "I saw her clutching something when she...transported off the surface."
"Yes, the Janus Key," Miranda confirmed, "The Librarian said it could be used to find any and all active Forerunner technology in the galaxy."
Lasky blanched, Palmer tensed, Roland flickered, and the Arbiter stood up even straighter than before.
"Th...That's..." Roland sputtered, "...convenient."
Miranda shook her head, "No, we planned it. We knew about the key beforehand, and we knew the Librarian would only hand it over to Halsey."
"Remember how Skynet and John Connor are supposed to be fictional? So are we, in other universes."
Both UNSC and Sword's of Sanghelios personnel froze at her statement. Fictional? A story? A tale told to children? A song sung by a bard in the streets?
"Your mission here," she gestured towards Requiem, "was all part of that story. That's how we knew about the Janus Key and that Halsey would be present here with you."
It took Lasky several moments to compose himself, "A story?"
Seeing the doubt in his eyes, Miranda shifted her gaze down towards Cortana, "Got any suggestions?"
"Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn?"
The woman gave her a skeptical look, "That's a bit personal."
Cortana knew this, and at least had the sense to look sheepish at the suggestion. "Considering that the Academy's records around the time of the attack were lost in the glassing, I think this will prove our point. Assuming things happened exactly that way..." she trailed off as a degree of doubt tainted her confident tone.
They all knew there was a degree of dramaticism and artistic license involved in any of the media they'd watched about their own universe.
Lasky listened while keeping his 'Captain' face firmly in place. The words 'Academy' and 'attack' hit a little too close to home. What exactly were they getting at? And what did it have to do with Halo?
As if sensing his line of thought, Cortana turned her avatar towards him, "Captain, what I'm about to show you is about the best proof I have to offer given the time crunch. That being said," she paused, "it's a bit personal to you."
Her contrite expression meant it was something he'd never share in front of people he barely knew, much less in a briefing.
But he was curious. What could they know that couldn't be found in UNSC records? What could be so interesting about one Thomas Lasky that some alternate universe would find it necessary to spend time and resources creating something that included him in a personal setting?
"Fine," he relented. "Show us what you've got."
She gave him an apologetic look and projected a flat holo above her head large enough for everyone to see clearly.
The feed opened with a vista of rolling, tree-covered mountains with a river flowing between them. On top of one of these hills was military installation filled with buildings and satellite dished topped off by an orbital elevator reaching high into the darkening sky.
Lasky set his jaw and steeled his features as the scene changed.
It was a closeup shot of a young woman's face, and she looked somewhere off into the distance. Sounds of the night filled the air around her as darkness settled in. Boot steps echoed behind her as someone else entered the frame.
A young man with dark, close-cropped hair sat down next to her just as the feed switched to a wider view. The couple was sitting on a concrete stairwell wall, a fair distance away from the dormitories in the background.
As he smoothed down his uniform, she turned to him, "I thought I'd give your spot a try."
He didn't respond, clearly having something else on his mind as he glanced down at the paper in front of him.
"That comm didn't make any sense," she continued, oblivious to her companion's plight. "Hating the Innies is all I've ever known."
The shot switched to the man's hands as he nervously fiddled with the document.
"Did you tell Mehaffey about it?" She asked as the shot switched to the man's face.
"No," he answered as he shook his head.
A silence fell between them for a second as she turned away.
"No," he repeated again as the far-away look in his eyes remained.
Finally, she noticed the document in his hands, "What's that?"
He snorted with amusement. "Apparently, I'm allergic to war..." he answered while handing over the document.
The shot changed to focus on her as her eyes darted across the fancy cardstock.
When she finished, the camera showed them both in the frame, head-on.
"What does this mean?" she asked as her brow scrunched up in confusion and disbelief. "You're leaving?"
"Yeah, tomorrow if I sign it," he explained tonelessly. Clearly, he was torn about his decision.
"Are you going to sign?"
He shrugged and shook his head, "I don't know," he replied as her expression shifted to one of sorrow.
As the tears welled up in her blue-grey eyes, he tried to explain.
But she wasn't going to let him. "It's okay," she began, "I know you don't want to be here. I just thought that maybe..."
She trailed off, unable to finish that train of thought. After a beat, she turned back to him and said, "I'll miss you." There was a hidden meaning behind her words, one that was not lost on the young man.
Their faces were inches apart. Their eyes were searching the other's faces for permission, which they gladly gave.
They came together slowly, tenderly. Neither individual was hurried, but the passion began to ignite between the two anyway.
When they broke apart for breath, they were forever interrupted when the wail of a siren filled the air.
"What is that?"
Cortana froze the holo-panel with a quick hand wave.
Lasky had done his best to keep his expression neutral, but Roland and Commander Palmer knew him too well to not see the subtle clenching of his jaw or the way his fingers twitched.
The room was silent for a beat before he vented his tension in a long, slow sigh. His eyes drifted down from the frozen image to Cortana's blue form below it. Her posture presented a resolute determination, but her face showed a tinge of remorse for what she'd just done.
"Sir..." Roland started, "Was that... you?"
"It was damn close," he croaked before clearing his throat.
Cortana took it from there, "It was a short, episodic series meant to introduce your character, captain. It was released in late 2012 right before the video game, Halo 4, which where the Chief and I met you."
He swallowed hard, "And you had no influence on this?"
She shook her head, "I didn't come through until 2013. By then, this story had already been told."
While Lasky had no way to prove that, he knew for a fact that any hope of a record or footage of his first, and only, kiss with Chyler Silva was lost with Corbulo Academy of Military Science.
He knew, because he had looked for it, but it simply didn't exist.
"Fine, you've sold me for the time being," he relented. "Now what?"
The AI gave him a small smile before turning towards the Arbiter. "That depends on him."
Thel had been silent for a while now, thinking about that very question. Now what?
"Trust will not come easy," he confessed. "However, I do not believe it impossible."
Miranda spoke up at this point, drawing his attention, "We've done it before, we can do it again. What do you suggest?"
"Information. Once you've located the remaining Halos, provide us with the coordinates to finish what we started."
The Voyager crew all shifted as his tone crescendoed on the last few words.
Weaver delicately raised one of her red eyebrows, "How many have you already destroyed?"
He spared her a glance before turning back to Miranda, "We've only had time to eliminate Installation 05. Zero-three will be our next target once we're done here."
"We know the locations of 03 and 07," Roland pointed out, "Is it possible to disable the primary weapon without destroying them? There's still a lot we can learn from them."
Cortana shook her head, "Whatever we undo, Skynet can redo, given enough time. They must be destroyed."
He dipped his saurian head towards the AI who'd played such a big, yet hidden, role in his transformation to Arbiter.
Lasky pinched the bridge of his nose, "I can't speak for High Comm, but I'd bet my commission on them not agreeing to that plan. That being said, there's not much I can do to stop you without causing an intergalactic incident."
He was referring to the Sangheili, of course. He had no idea what they were going to say about Voyager, or it's former/AWOL UNSC members.
The Voyager crew members already knew this, and so they didn't bring it up.
After a brief exchange, Cortana assured Thel that they'd transmit the coordinates as soon as Halsey decoded them.
Any further discussion would have to wait until after the evacuation. When everyone exited the conference room, the Elites went off immediately, but Miranda and the rest stayed for a moment while they gathered their weapons.
"Connor, take Weaver and the weapons back to the Flyer. We'll be along after a while."
John took the phaser rifles with a rueful smirk, knowing precisely what she had planned. Once he and Weaver were taken back by a pair of Spartan IVs, Miranda turned her attention back to Lasky, who'd been having a quiet discussion with Palmer.
Sensing the younger woman's attention, Palmer nodded her head towards her to get Lasky's attention.
"Something else you needed, Commander?"
The weariness in his voice almost made her wince, but she knew what she had to show them would hopefully be a bright spot after today's dower revelations.
"Captain, there's something we'd like to show you. One last surprise."
He sighed, "I'm not sure I can take any more of those today, Keyes."
Palmer's face twisted in annoyance for a moment, before it bloomed into understanding.
She almost blurted out Cutter's name, but Miranda shushed her with a coy smile and a gentle warning. "Don't spoil the surprise."
Lasky twisted his head up towards his friend with questioning glare.
"Alright," she put her hands up in mock surrender before turning to Lasky with an apologetic expression.
"Trust me, Tom, you'll actually like this one."
He looked skeptical but didn't voice it.
"Alright, what is it?"
Cortana, who was resting in Miranda's palm, smiled mischievously. "This reveal requires a view, captain. Perhaps we could join you on the bridge?"
He gave a blank look before responding, "Yes, because bringing three people of questionable integrity into the heart of the UNSC flagship is exactly what a good captain does."
Miranda was nonplussed, Alice remained a statue, but Cortana crossed her arms with an 'oh really' look covering her avatar's face.
"Oh no, my evil plan has been foiled..." she drawled. "Captain, if we wanted to take over Infinity, we would have done it by now. We're trying to build some goodwill here."
"You don't need to be on the bridge to do that," he retorted sharply. His patience was wearing thin.
The AI's face became pensive for a split second before she jumped off the DCC and allowed her avatar to grow to full height.
Lasky took a step back as she'd expanded to full height, filling his face with blue-glowing light. She stood just two inches shorter than he was, but the difference mattered little. He barely had to tilt his head to meet her electric gaze. There were people he knew that didn't consider Smart AIs as anything other than glorified tools. If they could see what he saw, they might believe otherwise.
The complexity of the emotions she displayed in eyes that were not real or connected to any biological reaction was astounding.
He could see the pain etched around her eyes that she was keeping at bay, but also the determination that kept her focused on the goal she'd set for herself. It was a look he'd seen many times on many people ranging from freshly minted privates to battle-hardened navy officers.
There was also desperation, and a deep-seated fear he did not doubt was reflected in his own features.
Lastly, there was respect, and he hadn't expected that.
After a brief few seconds, since she'd become full-size, she raised one of her midnight-blue arms and opened her hand. It took a second for Lasky to register that she wanted to shake his hand.
It seemed insane, considering she couldn't touch him. Right?
Palmer remained silent next to him, and so without any reason to deny her, he reached out tentatively until his fingers brushed against something that should have been impossible.
The hand was warm and soft, just as it would have been if she'd been human. He could even feel something like muscles move under the skin as she gripped his hand and shook it.
He held onto her hand longer than he normally would as he wondered at the marvel of force-field assisted holography.
When he finally let go, she reverted back to her standard size on the surface of her DCC, offering only a shrug at the suddenness of it. "It takes a lot of juice to do that, unfortunately," she sighed. "One day, perhaps."
"You realize you're going to have half of our Smart AIs hounding you for that tech, right?" Palmer pointed out as her eyebrow raised with partial disbelief.
"They won't have to bother me for long," she assured, "We've already designed a system that doesn't rely on...transdimensional technologies to operate."
He didn't fully understand her meaning, but he did get that there might be underlying complications with distributing alien tech to the masses.
"And what did that have to do with your 'final' surprise?" He asked, drawing back to their original conversation.
"You're not the first people we've come across, captain, and they held similar reservations until we showed them what we showed you. Then, cooperation allowed us to collaborate and create something... unique."
"Meaning we took a ship that was outdated and practically useless in a fight and turned it into something that could take on Infinity herself head to head and win."
That caught his attention. "And you're implying you didn't use any of Voyager's technology to achieve that?"
"We used its technology to assist in the construction, yes, but none of it is physically apart of it," she assured. "Commander Keyes," Cortana looked up at the woman holding her, "would you mind handing me over to Captain Lasky?"
One of Miranda's eyebrows raised slightly, "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely," she replied with a self-assured smirk, "trust has to start somewhere."
The Spartan shifted behind Miranda but didn't object as the woman handed over one of their key members to a potentially hostile party.
He watched her for a moment while she met his gaze with equal stoicism.
Finally, he relented. "Palmer, bring some backup. Just in case."
Cortana smiled and crossed her arms in a very Halsey-esque victory pose.
Miranda shook her head in disbelief before following Lasky down the corridor.
Alice trailed the rest of them by a few feet, eyeing the battle damage and watching for any sign of betrayal on Lasky's part. Or ONI's. She'd learned more than enough about the shadowy organization to know they had a penchant for popping out of nowhere and ruining someone's day.
She'd clocked at least one of the spooks earlier, watching them as their group walked towards the conference room. Silently, she'd wondered what Serin would think of all this, and how'd she react.
Part of Alice still thought it was funny that someone who'd had been conscripted and forced into a life of servitude to ONI would one day lead it.
As the approached the bridge, Alice let out a low whistle at the damage Cameron had wrought on blast door and bulkhead separating the bridge from the rest of the ship. Three repair crews were already carving away half-disintegrated panels and destroyed circuitry.
Two Spartan IVs she'd not met before greeted them at the threshold. They were unfamiliar to her, but judging by the way they carried themselves, and the scratched up paint on their armor, they were likely some of the older S-IVs.
If she were to guess, likely members of the first class of S-IVs that Palmer had been a part of.
Lasky, Palmer, and Keyes gathered around the holo-table, where Roland was waiting for them. Alice held back a few feet and watched things unfold.
"Alright," Lasky started while exchanging glances with Cortana and Miranda, "What now?"
Cortana, who was isolated from Infinity's systems, gestured for her companion to take the lead. Commander Keyes nodded and began inputting a comm frequency and security codes.
"Roland, transmit these to the opposite side of Requiem," she requested while reviewing the data she'd input.
"These are UNSC frequencies and encryption codes. Your 'friends' are UNSC?"
"They are," she confirmed, "and they've waited a long time to rejoin the fight."
Lasky's eyes narrowed as Palmer's face grew a smirk.
Alice, knowing the Smart AI had likely worked out who she was at this point, called him out on it. "Come on, Roland," she snorted, "you already know, don't you."
Her final two words were accentuated as she disengaged her helmet and pulled it off, revealing her youthful face to his all-knowing gaze.
His avatar's eyes widened for a second before his face became resigned. "Well, I was only 67% certain before now..." he mumbled before looking to Lasky for permission to transmit.
After looking at Alice for a moment, Lasky nodded to Roland, who immediately sent the blank transmission towards their satellite relays around Requiem.
"There's going to be a lot of credits changing hands once this gets out..." the AI sighed as they waited for the response.
Most of the bridge crew had a passive interest in the strange trio who'd taken their Captain's attention away during an already demanding evacuation. Despite the intrigue, some were too busy to care.
The chief comms officer was one such person. She'd been busy beforehand, but now she was having to route dozens of requests asking for instructions about routing their flight paths around the Shadow of Intent and the mysterious USS Voyager. At the same time, the rest of her staff was busy with the actual evac.
Her entire shift had been one crisis after another, and the dark circles under her blue-green eyes showed how much it had worn her down. Even her usually pristine appearance had started to slip after the bridge attack a few hours before.
The copper locks, typically braided and twisted into a bun at the top of her head, had started to fall out and accentuate her exhausted appearance.
Despite her slightly ragged appearance, she was still fully capable of doing her job, which meant she saw Roland's transmission request zip across her holo-pad. It prioritized itself over one of the commanders of a Strident-class vessel requesting additional medical supplies.
She swallowed her annoyance at the disruption and pushed the supplies request into another queue. For some reason, Roland had made sure this particular comm was routed through her feed. She'd been dealing with local comm traffic, why was he giving her this?
The officer stepped away from the comm stations and walked down to the holo-table where the group was gathered in order to get an explanation.
Before she addressed the AI, she noted the unfamiliar faces surrounding the table for the first time. Commander Palmer was holding back amusement, Lasky looked twice as ragged as she did, and Roland was his jovial self.
The other three must have been from Voyager, and yet they all were UNSC, or were, at some point.
The trio included a smart AI that looked vaguely familiar, a female Spartan she didn't recognize, and a commander wearing an outdated Navy uniform.
She simply noted their appearance before stopping at the edge of the holo-table.
"Roland," she began while routing more requests and sending repair crews to fix one of the comm array's that'd been having issues. "what's this comm for?"
It was her way of asking why she was being bothered by something he could handle himself.
"Because I think you're going to want to handle this one, Lieutenant," he replied coyly.
The woman paused and looked up from her datapad in confusion. Just what the hell was he getting at?
Lasky looked up from the female AI he held in his right hand and blinked when his eyes landed on her. She felt a small blush creep up her cheeks at her less-than-stellar appearance.
Suddenly his eyes widened in shock, but why she was at a loss as to why he reacted the way he had.
The blue AI suddenly spoke up as her own face lit up in surprise. "Oh! I guess today can get more exciting!"
Before the lieutenant could open her mouth to ask the AI what the hell she meant, her pad chirped as the mystery transmission Roland had sent out was answered.
The call was on hold, pending manual authentication.
"You might want to answer that Lieutenant Cutter."
At the mention of her name, the unknown Spartan and the naval commander's face mirrored her captain's.
"Cutter?" The Spartan's raspy voice nearly squeaked in surprise. "As in..."
The lieutenant cut her off right there, "The answer is yes, Spartan..." she did her best not to sound irritated, but she was sick and tired of answering this question.
Now it was the comm officer's turn to be surprised. "You're a Spartan-II?"
"Yes, ma'am," she replied.
She was about to comment on her apparent age when the pad beeped again. Forcing herself back to her duties for a quick moment. After a few seconds of rerouting more comms, she got to the priority one waiting for authentication.
With a few taps, she opened the comm's auth-package and reviewed the codes and encryption.
One was very old and out of date when she checked, but the encryption was up to current standards, and so she scrolled down further to see who'd sent it.
It was labeled as a priority communication request from the bridge of a UNSC starship.
One flick more opened the details pane and revealed the identity of the mystery caller.
Just the ship's mythic symbol was enough to freeze the breath in her lungs.
Her hands trembled as her teal eyes read what she'd never thought they'd never see outside of an archive file.
UNSC Spirit of Fire
Captain James Gregory Cutter, SN: 01730-58392-JC
Her efforts to steel her shaking digits failed as she double and triple checked the authorization codes.
The results confirmed it wasn't a false positive, but the outdated code meant it could still be a hoax.
Lieutenant Cutter glanced up from the data and reminded herself just how crazy the day had been. Her father and his long lost ship reappearing after 27 years seemed in line with the day's proceedings.
However rational that reasoning was, her heart was too hardened to just give in and believe.
Having no reason not to authorize the connection, she tapped the screen and sent it on through.
The breath she'd been holding slammed out of her lungs when he appeared above the holo-table. The projection was 2D, but there was no questioning the image.
Roland voiced what she could see on her own datapad: the feed integrity was confirmed; it wasn't fake.
"Commander Keyes," he addressed the woman in the outdated uniform, "I see they haven't tried to court marshal you yet."
The edge of the woman's lips is upturned. "Being legally dead makes that a bit difficult, Captain."
"I'm sure it does," he replied flatly, but with a smirk of his own to convey his own amusement at the absurdity of the situation.
The moment passed quickly, but Lieutenant Cutter used the distraction to move out of the holo cam's range. She was barely keeping it together as it was, unsure what she'd do if she had to talk to him.
Breaking down in front of her colleagues and superiors was something she'd promised herself she'd never do. The comm officer always knew there was a chance she might get the news that they'd found the Spirit of Fire, or that ONI had declassified some of the many files they kept under lock and key regarding the lost ship and crew.
While she'd been extracting herself from the situation, the conversation continued as Keyes introduced Lasky, Palmer, and Roland.
After the woman finished, Lasky was the first to speak up. "Captain Cutter, it's an honor to meet you." He was sincere, but there was a hint of trepidation in his voice. Its something the younger Cutter could understand. What she didn't notice was the entire room coming to a halt at the words 'Captain Cutter'.
"The honor is all mine, Captain Lasky. The Master Chief spoke highly of you when we met some months ago."
The lieutenant spotted a brief blush grace her captain's face before he swallowed thickly. "Well, he might be the only one after today."
Captain Cutter, who wasn't prone to articulate gestures, simply raised an eyebrow at Lasky's statement. "I can't imagine having to explain all this to High Comm."
Lasky couldn't keep the disbelief off of his face. "I'm not sure I'd trade places with someone who's been MIA for the better part of 30 years."
"I've had time to prepare, captain. Hopefully, we'll be able to clear our names without too much trouble."
"Considering the things they've accused you of, I highly doubt that."
"ONI can dig through all the logs they want. All they'll find is a loyal crew doing their duty to ensure humanity's survival, including sacrificing our own slipspace drive to destroy a Forerunner fleet the Covenant was about to commandeer."
Silence swept across the bridge at Captain Cutter's admission.
Keyes with a grin on her face, added, "And became the first humans in 100,000 years to successfully engage the Flood and win."
A quiet 'whoa' echoed somewhere in the background at the mention of the infamous parasite.
Even in her wildest dreams, his own daughter had never considered that her father had faced the terror that the UNSC had only known about for the last five years. The rest of his story, however, seemed almost picture-perfect. She'd always hoped that he'd gone out in a blaze of glory. It was a better fate than all the other rumors circulating the fleet for the last three decades.
Defector. Deserter. POW.
Lost in space, however, seemed a fantasy. The crew would have been found by now, right?
Lieutenant Cutter swallowed thickly and collapsed into her comm station's chair. Her comm pad clattered to the floor as the shock of it all settled in.
Lasky finally found the words to respond to Miranda's revelation and turned back to Captain Cutter. "I see," he breathed tiredly. "In that case, captain, you have my thanks, at least. Dealing with one Forerunner warship took everything we had, and the Flood... well, you know."
He gave Alice a quick glance to include her in that statement, to which she nodded back before placing her helmet back on her head.
"We can deal with particulars later, but currently we have more pressing matters," Cutter remarked as Serina appeared by his side. "Serina's been keeping me updated on the situation. It sounds like we're gonna have our hands full if we don't pull together and deal with Skynet."
Cortana, who'd been quiet for a while, piped up, "Respectfully, Captain Cutter, we're way past having our hands full now. We crossed that line when it took over Onyx."
He nodded in acquiescence before continuing, "Either way, the faster we organize, the better chance we'll have. Once you're finished evacuating Requiem, we'll talk more. For now, we'll settle with joining the 'fleet,' if you'll have us."
Lasky didn't ponder the request for long.
"Commander Bradley," he addressed Infinity's lurking XO, "Make room in our formation for a Phoenix-class warship. Palmer, escort our 'guests' back to the hanger bay."
Bradley, an average blonde-headed man, acknowledged with an 'aye, captain' and headed towards the comm area.
Palmer took possession of Cortana and motioned for Alice and Keyes to follow her.
The Spartan, however, did not move. "Commander Keyes," the woman turned toward her, "may I request a temporary transfer to Infinity?"
Miranda's eyebrow raised a little but didn't voice her confusion. "What for, senior chief?"
A grin stretched across Alice's face, though no one could see it, "I want to check out the new model, see what they're made of."
Keyes followed the young S-II's nod towards the S-IV guards posted at the entrance to the bridge.
"Yes, ma'am," she replied. Though secretly, she really was curious about how they'd perform, and she was itching for some new sparring partners.
Keyes' lips upturned at the unspoken part of the request. "I'm fine with it, if you are, captain."
Lasky grimaced slightly, but he too understood what Alice was up to. "Alright," he acquiesced, "but you'll report directly to me while you're here, understood?"
Palmer grimaced behind her own helmet, but she understood. Alice was not part of the new Spartan branch and was still technically part of the Navy.
With that done, Palmer led Keyes and Cortana away.
Alice watched them leave before pointing at the two remaining S-IVs and then pointing back herself and gesturing 'later' in hand sign.
They glanced at each other before the one on the left gave her a thumbs up.
She turned back to the holo-table just as Lasky relayed informed Cutter that they were sending over a fleet position momentarily.
"We'll slip in approximately 15 klicks off your port bow before moving into position."
"Roland, relay their projected flight path to the fleet," Lasky ordered before signing off with Cutter and ending the feed.
"Signal relayed, sir." The AI responded a few seconds later.
Lasky set his jaw and exhaled slowly as the day continued to push him to his limits.
Alice, meanwhile, walked toward the viewport at the front of the bridge but stopped when she was parallel to the comm stations.
Lieutenant Cutter was talking to Commander Bradley, asking for permission to be relieved from duty. The woman was clearly compromised and could no longer do her demanding job.
Normally, Alice might look down on someone who couldn't keep it together in a stressful, emotional situation. However, being in the middle of all this chaos helped the Spartan understand just how fundamental the Spirit of Fire was to the woman.
"Lieutenant," she called out, "join me?"
Both Cutter and Bradley swiveled their heads toward her. The woman's expression was tightly controlled, but her eyes betrayed the stormy emotions swelling insider her. Bradley turned back to the comm officer and authorized her request discreetly before flashing her a reassuring half-smile.
Alice waited as the woman calmly walked over to where she was standing before moving towards the viewport some twenty feet ahead. A dozen eyes were on them as they passed the last set of stations, but they ignored the scrutiny as they passed by the large 3D holo-tank and stopped at the railing just in front of viewports.
Several seconds passed in silence as they waited for the Spirit of Fire to make its grand entrance. Those who could leave their stations momentarily gathered several feet behind them, including Lasky.
"What's it like?"
Alice glanced down at the woman who's first name she did not know.
"Being a popsicle for 27 years?"
"No," the older woman chortled, "serving with him. Working with him. What's it like?"
The Spartan thought about that for a moment. She hadn't served under him long, but in the short time she had, he'd left an impression, especially on Jerome.
"He's one hell of a captain," she said simply. "Decisive, intelligent, calm even in the most dire of circumstances, and he has this demeanor that demands respect, but not out of fear. It's almost... fatherly, I think. He exudes an aura of wisdom and resolute determination."
She tried to picture that and compare it to the man she'd known so long ago.
"Gotta name, lieutenant?"
The woman blinked at the casual question. She'd never met a Spartan-II before, only seeing them from a distance or hearing about them through the grapevine. From what she knew, they were strictly professional and straight to the point.
This one, however, seemed... different.
Perhaps it was because she was so much younger than the others?
"Adrian," she swallowed back the emotions churning her gut, "Lieutenant Adrian Cutter."
The Spartan offered her hand, which Adrian shook. "Senior Chief Petty Officer Alice-130."
As their hands fell away, a flash of blue caught the edge of their vision. They looked towards its source and watched as the Spirit of Fire exploded into view.
Various noises of enticement and disbelief filled the bridge at the sight of the legendary ship, but for Adrian, it was all she could do to stay on her feet.
She hadn't seen her father, nor his ship, since she was a child. Now, it was here, looking very different than it had the last time it had been in the presence of another UNSC vessel.
And yet the people stayed the same.
The personal issues remained, but she couldn't help but wonder how Voyager and the mysterious machine who'd kidnapped Dr. Halsey tied into all of it.
Adrian gripped the rail as the Spirit flew gracefully past Infinity's bow. The enormity of the situation was settling hard in her stomach, and it made her wonder:
'Just what the hell did we get mixed up in?'
A/N: So... it's been a year, has it?
It's all good since the chapter was extra long, right?
In all seriousness, I've been busy with various other projects, real life stuff, gaming, etc. I've also done a lot of editing on the this chapter and some rewriting that took me months to figure out exactly how I wanted to write it.
The next chapter will switch back to our other cast in the Star Trek 'verse. Hopefully it won't take as long as this one. It should be much shorter.