Okay, Ladies, Gentlemen, Evil Alien Overlords and various other entities that might be present here, I think this thing is finally ready to go to a degree. I've still got a single scene that a military vet on Spacebattles named Minohtaur is looking over, but the other vets and active duty guys looking this over have already given me the green light on the latest revisions (part of the reason this chapter took so long is that the thing is nearly fifty pages long, and there was quite a bit of it that I wanted some members of the first world's militaries to look over and make certain that I was doing correctly. There has also been some domestic drama with close family members that I have been drawn into due to physical proximity and my legal background). If I need to, I can always edit the chapter to adjust that particular scene if Mino finds anything particularly egregious with it. As it stands, it's been more than half a year since I posted my last chapter, and nearly fifty pages or not, you guys have been patiently waiting long enough.
On that note, a very, very special thanks to the following individuals of for their gracious assistance in this matter: Atlan, Captain Orsai, and Sith for helping with grammar, proofing, and troubleshooting elements of this finale, and also to Commander Razor, Spartan 303, and Minohtaur for their aid in reviewing the combat elements of this chapter. Athene also tried to help, but personal matters arose and she was unable to do so. Regardless, they all have my sincerest thanks. Without them this chapter would have been significantly poorer in quality. If anyone else spots any errors or things that don't make any sense to them, please, be sure to bring it to my attention and I will do my level best to correct it, explain it and/or answer the question (I have also made some minor tweaks to the previous chapters).
And once again, my sincerest thanks to all of you guys for not only your patience with me through the drama of my personal life and the less than regular updates for this story, but also for taking the time to read it, comment upon it, and critique. I can only hope that my final chapter is good enough to have been worth the wait.
Thus, without further ado, here is Chapter Four of Consequences of Revelation.
Consequences of Revelation
Chapter Four- Lair of the Dragon
The Master Chief checked the powercell on his APR-1 yet again as the Cruiser Leviathan moved towards its destination. In less than fifteen minutes, Captain Dare and her squad were going to be boarding the Ever Vigilant, and then… well… then everything was going to come to a head. There were a hundred different possibilities and outcomes, but in the end they could all be boiled down into one of two archetypes. Either they would succeed in deposing Admiral Serin Osman as the acting head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, or Osman would escape them. His right index finger twitched as that thought crossed his mind. The latter option actually made 117 more than a little uneasy. He knew all too well how ONI operated, and what they were capable of. With the information that Osman had at her fingertips, combined with her cunning and whatever off the record resources she might have at her disposal, up to and including moles in other UNSC chains of command and the civilian government, if she decided that she had nothing to lose the damage that she could do might be immense.
His eyes narrowed slightly behind his helmet. He could not allow that to happen. Not with Humanity already as weak as it was, as vulnerable as it was. Jul 'Mdama and the Storm was bad enough, but if mankind found itself in a war between the Storm, the other remaining hostile loyalists, and a fully reborn insurgency, then defeat would likely be inevitable. That made his mission all the more starkly clear: break Osman's hold on power by any means necessary. Lord Hood had agreed and while they were initially going into this operation with orders to try to minimize casualties and use less-than-lethal methods wherever possible, if Osman's troops forced a confrontation, lethal force was authorized.
It was an irony that wasn't lost on the Master Chief. To have spent so much of his life fighting to preserve Humanity and the UNSC, shedding his blood to save civilian and soldier alike… and he now found himself called on to kill his fellow soldiers if things escalated to that point. He had sacrificed the lives of UNSC personnel before. All the Spartans had. Whether it was nuking an overrun position in the hopes of stopping a Covenant advance or leaving critically wounded individuals behind in order to accomplish objectives (he felt a bitter taste in his mouth and swore he heard Sam's voice for a moment)… but he'd never actually opened fire on UNSC personnel with the intent to kill them before. Even during the Mark V trial runs, he'd managed to avoid using lethal force on the ODSTs sent to intercept him, despite the fact that they'd definitely been attempting to use lethal force on him.
The Master Chief flexed his fingers once again as he walked through the bowels of the ship, heading to one of the briefing rooms, and he found that his mouth was suddenly dry. He knew the risks, what was at stake, and knew that if he had to cross the line, to pull the trigger on his new weapons in order to preserve the UEG and the UNSC, that he would. But that didn't make it any easier. He also mused on the irony that the pulse rifle on his back, built with the express purpose of completely destroying any advantage that Storm Covenant infantry might have over UNSC troops, might actually be "baptized" on human foes.
He resisted the urge to shake his head, and forced his mind to jump to another train of thought, one somewhat more comforting: Crimson Team. His meeting with Lord Hood had more or less confirmed the reason that the S-III team was operating incognito on the Infinity, and the cyborg actually found it reassuring in a strange way, knowing that there was such a failsafe in place. The Infinity was a test-hull, not as effective, ton-for-ton, as a purpose-built direct warship, given myriad of multi-purpose experimental elements of the ship's design, such as its ability to act as a sort of capital-ship carrying craft, ferrying frigates and other small capital craft. Such an ability allowed the Infinity to rapidly deploy a small flotilla, but the massive amount of internal space required to properly carry and store the frigates was internal space that couldn't be dedicated to additional firepower, armor plating, and secondary power sources. However, it still carried a great deal of weaponry, almost as much as a Covenant super-carrier. Hypothetically, it was possible that a Captain and his or her command crew might decide to… abuse… that type of power. While the Master Chief was confident that the UNSC could stop a rogue Infinity, the amount of damage that it might be able to deal before being brought down was not something he wanted to think about.
It was good to know, then, that Hood had taken some steps to ensure that there would always be at least one element that he could count on in the event of a mutiny to do everything in its power to ensure that the Infinity was never used against the UEG. It also left him with little doubt that the next batch of S-IV's would have even more such S-III units embedded within it.
"Are you well, 117?" Sentinel's voice echoed in his internal speakers. "Your neural activity scans are quite active."
"I'm fine." John's voice was short and curt, his mind returning to the here and the now. It still felt strange, having another A.I. hooked up after all this time. On some level, it still felt like a betrayal of sorts, a violation of that bond that he and Cortana had, to let another one into his suit, even if it was only a temporary partnership.
There was a moment of silence, and the Master Chief had the distinct impression that Sentinel was hesitating about something. "I…" he paused once more, and there was silence for several seconds, lifetimes for an A.I. An image appeared in the top of the Chief's HUD: Sentinel's helmet. His eyes burned a little bit brighter a moment later. "I understand. I have begun re-reviewing known performance history of ONI counter-intrusion software and their Smart A.I.s, and attempting to extrapolate what else they might be capable of based of that performance data."
"You'll do fine," the Spartan said. "The mission comes first. Everything else is secondary. Hood gave you to me for a reason." And that reason had been clear: Ever Vigilant was a cyber-warfare hornets' nest. ONI would have dozens of A.I.s, including Osman's personal one, Black Box, on standby to prevent hostile intrusions into the mainframes and other systems. While there was no way to remotely hijack something like a Mjolnir armor suit, there were limits to what he could do in this armor. ONI's computerized attack dogs could still lock him out of certain regions, begin dumping data files, or attempt to activate self-destruct protocols.
When walking into the proverbial dragon's lair, especially with the intent of taking down the dragon herself, deliberately crippling himself over something like sentimentality was a luxury that the Spartan simply could not afford. There was too much riding on this operation. And while he wasn't Cortana, from a technical perspective, Sentinel was more than qualified for this operation. He was a Class V Smart A.I., geared towards ECM and ECCM warfare, hacking, decryption and encryption. And he wasn't going to be the only A.I. coming along for the ride, the Spartan reminded himself, as he turned the corner and arrived at the door to the briefing room. Every single one of them were going in with personnel A.I. support. He punched in the access code and it hissed open.
"Officer on deck!" he heard Fred bark. The other members of Blue Team saluted out of reflex, a gesture that the Master Chief returned. It was a habit and a routine they still followed, despite the fact that 104 outranked him now. He looked around the room. Fireteam Crimson was present as well, as was Dare's ODST group, and a few other ODST squads that were on standby and would perform the role of secondary ingress teams. The Captain herself hadn't arrived yet and so he looked to the second in command of the group, a Sergeant Major by the name of Buck.
He'd looked over Buck's CSV, and that of the rest of the squad, prior to their departure. They'd proven themselves on Reach, the Battle of New Mombasa, and a dozen other battlefields throughout The War. They also had a great deal of experience with the Huragok and served as the bodyguard and escort of the one that had come to be known as Virgil. That would make them posing as the escort for Captain Dare during her inspection to make certain that the needs of the Huragok were being seen to more natural and believable.
He frowned for a moment as his eyes fell on Sergeant Dunn. The ODST had tucked himself away in an empty alcove that normally would have held the heavy weapons, such as rocket launchers and the like, that were noticeably absent today, and judging by his bio-specs, was asleep. It made sense. Veteran troops were used to catching short powernaps wherever they could get a moment of downtime, especially if they were expecting a "hot" deployment shortly, and Sergeant Dunn already appeared to be fully kitted out and ready to go. But the Captain would be here soon, and the Master Chief wanted everyone ready and alert for the final briefing. Their plan had some room for on the fly adjustments and error leeway, but he wanted to keep the risks in this plan to a minimum.
He walked over and gently shook the ODST on the shoulder. Dunn grunted and stared up at him. The ODST didn't say anything, but shifted out of the alcove and saluted him. The Spartan returned the gesture.
"We're getting started soon, Sergeant," he said. "Rook" said nothing once again, but nodded and moved over to the rest of his squad.
Chief's eyes fell on Crimson Team next. Petty Officer Richards was ramrod straight as she stared at 104 and 058, and he wondered what her face might have looked like, behind her Warrior class helmet. Was it neutral? Was there a smile there? A frown? She noticed his gaze, and nodded towards him. It had been decided that in the event that a confrontation did occur, two Spartan teams had better odds than one, and Crimson was the best they had on hand. While he had never really worked with a Spartan-III team, he knew that Crimsons' members were experienced, battle-hardened, and more than capable. He had full confidence that they would perform above and beyond expectations today.
The door at the far end of the room hissed open, and Captain Dare walked into the room. It was the Chief's turn to call out that there was an Officer on deck, and his hand came up to salute. The rest of Blue and Crimson Teams' did as well, though only Buck did among Dare's "personal" ODST squad. The rest gave some variation of a wave or other acknowledgement. He nodded softly to himself. It made sense, he supposed. After so many years of working together with the Captain, their protocol might have gotten just a little bit lax.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Dare said as she walked up to the holographic display table, "in ten minutes time, we will be docking with the Ever Vigilant. Once that happens, everything is going to depend on you carrying out your roles as expected." She pulled up a display of the space station and the teams came up around it. They'd been briefed before on what to do, this was simply one last review before the real thing. "Blue Team and Crimson Team are to stay onboard the Leviathan, ready to storm in when we have to go dynamic. Code phrase is "clean sweep." She said, looking around at them. "Sergeant Buck's team and myself will make our way through routine search-and-observe procedures, eventually arriving at Admiral Osman's command room." She held up a stylus and traced the path along the hologram, leaving a red colored trail indicating their path. "There are numerous security checkpoints, and I suspect at some point, given how paranoid Osman's likely to be, that we'll probably be searched, searched again, and then disarmed." She looked over at Buck's team. "They're also not likely to allow more than three of us into the Admiral's command room at a time." She turned to face Dutch, the heavy weapons specialist of the team. "Dutch, I want you, Mickey, and Romeo stay outside. From there, wait thirty seconds or until you get my primary signal, then neutralize the guards. Buck and Rook will do the same inside after I've confirmed that Osman is in fact Osman. If it's not actually her, I'll give you the abort signal, and we move to the secondary plan."
The Master Chief nodded to himself. That was one reason they were doing this at Osman's most fortified location, rather than having Lord Hood simply call a FLEETCOMM meeting and luring her into the open. If past performances of ONI CINC was anything to go by, they couldn't discount the possibility that Osman would simply send a surgically altered body-double in her place. On Ever Vigilant, her personal fortress, she was likely to be far less wary of such things, and given the shortcomings with UNSC flash-cloning tech, at least when it came to replicating an entire person, the odds of her using a cloned body-double while she was off somewhere else was low.
"If it is her, the primary signal goes off, and that's when things need to start rolling," her eyes fell on 117 and the other Spartans. "Blue Team, Crimson Team, you will move up the primary docking collar and secure an ingress and egress point at the first security terminal. From there, Sentinel is to take control of the station's communication networks and start broadcasting what's going on." There was a pause and Dare sighed. "If it comes to actual fighting, secondary teams will be on alert and they'll need that ingress point." She nodded towards the other ODSTs as she circled the security terminal. "You'll have the heavy weapons, so we're likely going to have to stay hunkered down with the VIP, while you fight your way to us. Official personnel count for Ever Vigilant is about two thousand individuals, though only a quarter of those are combat personnel."
Yes, "official", the Chief thought to himself. That was always the key word in these situations. There could always be more, and with ONI, just because a person wasn't in battle armor, didn't mean they weren't dangerous. There were also non-organic defenses such as blast doors, automated turrets, and a myriad of other obstacles (many of which were not likely to be on the official schematics). Still, he and the rest of the teams had some trump cards of their own, trump cards that would hopefully cause anyone not as fanatical as a Sangheili Zealot to realize they were beaten and to stand down.
The briefing went on for a few more minutes as the teams coordinated down to the most minute detail what they were supposed to do if things went according to plan, and what they would need to do if and when things started to unravel. The Master Chief felt the spike of adrenaline that came with knowing that he was about to deploy. He let out a short breath as the groups broke and double checked their gear one final time. 117 secured his laser weapon and doubled checked his armor modules. Sentinel gave him a sit-rep on his armor as well. Everything was green across the board.
Captain Dare and her team left to head for the airlock, and the Master Chief narrowed his gaze behind his visor. He remembered a saying that he'd learned in one of his military history lessons: Alea iacta est. It seemed apt. One way or another, the die had indeed been cast, and there was no turning back from this.
Captain Dare walked up through the thirty meter long docking collar between the Leviathan and the Ever Vigilant. The armored doors at the far end hissed open, and she handed over her datapad to the security operators as she walked through. The head security officer looked over the readout, and gestured for the security teams to retrieve the various baggage and supplies that she'd brought with her, and waved for her and her team to move up through a scanner corridor, an open topped passageway ringed with X-Rays, infrared, and other, more exotic scanning mechanisms.
Automated weaponry and ONI security personnel tracked her and her escorts as they moved down the corridor. She found it somewhat amusing that they were running so many scanners over her and her team while they were openly brandishing assault rifles. It made sense, though, she knew. She'd been with the Office of Naval Intelligence for nearly thirty years now, and it was never the overt displays of force that you were worried about. It was what was hidden, what you couldn't see, that you had to worry about, especially when the "guests" you were receiving weren't scheduled to be here today.
At the end of the corridor, she depolarized her visor and took off the gauntlet on her right hand. A retinal scanner checked her eyes, while her voice was also analyzed for confirmation that she was who she said she was. Last but not least was a DNA sample. It was something that followed for each and every member of her team. It took them twenty minutes to get through while the security teams pawed through bags, finding only data-pads and translator devices.
"What's all this for?" the security team leader, a Sergeant whose name and CSI failed to pop up on when Dare scanned him.
"Instruments for communicating with the Huragok onboard this station as well as instructions for the Admiral and camera drones for the purpose of recording this station's personnel during battle-readiness drills. FLEETCOMM wants to make certain that their most important intelligence installation is prepared, and more importantly from my position, make certain that you know how to properly take care of the Huragok during battle."
"Captain, we don't-" he started to say, before Dare summoned her best glare and looked over at the man.
"Have me as scheduled to be here today? I am aware of that, Sergeant. It rather defeats the purpose of an unscheduled inspection if I call to let you know I'm coming." Behind her, she heard Dutch and Mickey both snigger.
"Sergeant," she didn't yell or bark; she spoke very softly, barely above a whisper. "The Storm will not be sporting enough to give you a three day warning before they jump in-system and start shooting the place up. Nor was the Didact kind enough to try and coordinate with the UNSC's calendars to make sure we were ready for his little rampage. A swarm of Flood will not send an envoy to see if August 21, 2572 is a good date to decide the fate of Earth. Our enemies will not call in advance to make sure you're properly battle-ready, so I will not either."
The Sergeant took a step back, his face flushed red with embarrassment behind his depolarized visor. He swallowed and licked his lips, before he nodded his head. "I… understood, ma'am." He turned to face the team behind the primary security checkpoint. A sigh left the man's lips and he shook his head. "Their clearance checks out, let them through."
"Very good, Sergeant," Dare kept her voice curt as she moved to pick up her supplies and motioned for Buck's team to do the same. "Just let us do our jobs and we'll be out of your hair as quickly as possible."
The man said nothing, but merely nodded his head. Dare repolarized her visor and headed towards the center of the station. Step one was down. Now it was time for obfuscation.
The Captain prepared herself as she made her way down the corridor towards where their primary objective lay. It had taken a few hours to run through the motions of their official purpose for being here. She'd interviewed a number of Huragok to make sure they were being properly treated and that none of the personnel had been acting unprofessionally towards them, watched the ONI personnel run through battle-readiness drills, and seen how the troops onboard the station treated the Engineers during combat drills. Now, it was time for her and her team to move on to the next phase of the plan.
Outwardly, Dare was able to exude the same calm, cool, "always in control" body language and demeanor that one would expect for a woman that had stared death in the face and cheated the Grim Reaper more times than any one individual had a right to. Inwardly, she knew that she would need that demeanor more than ever in order to get close to the Admiral. From the moment she'd stepped on this station, she had felt Black Box's electronic eyes upon her, watching for signs and clues, studying her like a book. She could feel that gaze intensify as she approached the final security checkpoint. Osman was paranoid and a control freak, like everyone else that had ever held the position of Head of the Office of Naval Intelligence. It made sense, she supposed. In such a position, you had dirt on everyone, knew just about everything there was to know about everyone in the UNSC and what was going on behind the scenes. And everyone knew it. While no one had ever come after the CINC of ONI, either out of a belief that such infighting was beneath them and detrimental to the UNSC, or because they felt that if they were ever to do so, they might get a visit in the night by a team of ONI spooks or inconvenient closet doors might open, there was always that chance. Always the chance that someone might be stupid enough, might be driven enough, or ambitious enough to have an eye on your position.
Perhaps that was just one more reason that it was past time to clean house down here.
Regardless, Captain Dare knew that she was going to be dealing with an individual that might space her the moment she suspected something was amiss. She could not give Serin Osman any suspicion that she was here for any purpose other than delivering a "For Eyes Only" message from Lord Hood. A group of four ONI security troops, assault rifles held tightly against their chests, stood next to the security checkpoint.
"One at a time, through the terminal. All non-essential equipment stays here with us." The team leader, a Staff Sergeant, said. As with all the security personnel that she'd encountered so far, his CSV and identity were blacked out. The Captain nodded, and proceeded through the checkpoint, setting down everything, including the "package" that she was to deliver to the Admiral.
The package, and her team's weapons moved along the conveyor belt and the scanners as the Captain herself stepped through the security terminal, followed by Buck and his team. The Staff Sergeant stepped in front of her suddenly and gestured towards her sidearm.
"I said that all non-essential equipment stays here with us," he said, his voice soft.
"UNSC regulations Section 769.2-A, subsection F—" she started, quoting a regulation that allowed an special UNSC personnel to remain armed in otherwise restricted areas.
"Don't apply out here," the man fired back, reaching down taking her sidearm and handing it off to one of the other security troopers. "You want to see the Admiral? No guns. No knives. Not even a toothpick. Am I clear?"
Dare stared at him for a moment, and though both of their faces were hidden, she could sense his eyes narrowing, as though daring her to challenge his authority. She cocked her head to one side, keeping her body language as neutral as she could. It was a fine line that she had to walk. She had to submit to his authority, but not in a way that might make her seem nervous or overly cowed, as though she had something to hide. At the same time, she could not give a sense of arrogance or appear overconfident. That might tip her hand.
Finally, she gave a curt nod and gestured to Buck and Rook. The two stepped forward as another security trooper opened up her package and looked at the datapad that was inside of it. He tried to power it up, and it hummed softly and powered up for a few couple seconds, before the screen flashed red and then it powered back down.
"You forget to charge your batteries?" the Staff Sergeant asked.
"Gene-locked, the information on that pad is for the Admiral's eyes only. Orders straight from Lord Hood," she said. The Staff Sergeant frowned and looked over to the man holding it, who was running another scanner over it.
"It's clean sir, and there's a DNA, retinal, and fingerprint scanner on the side," the other security officer said.
"Fine. It goes in." He turned back and looked at Dare. "Make it fast. The Admiral's time's important."
"I assure you, wasting Admiral Osman's time is the last thing I wish to do." Dare said, before she moved forward, Buck and Rook a couple of steps behind her.
Dutch, Mickey and Romeo remained behind, and Dutch nodded towards the Staff Sergeant. Dare didn't have to see his face to know that there was an eager smirk on it, hidden by his helmet. She had confidence in the heavy weapons expert, even if he was too eager for a fight half the time. The blast doors in front of her opened up and she strode forward.
Osman's command room was relatively spartan in nature, rather appropriate, Dare couldn't help but think. It was about thirty feet around, circular in shape, with a pair of security troopers at the door. Serin Osman gazed up from her many computers as Captain Dare entered. Buck and Rook stopped a few feet after they entered the room and assumed a parade rest stance, while Dare continued forward.
"Ahhhh, Captain Veronica Dare," Osman said, leaning forward and clasping her hands together. There was a soft grin on her face, but it didn't reach her eyes. "What brings Hood's errand girl all the way out here? Aside from tying up my assets with pointless posturing to determine how battle ready we are and making certain that we treat the Huragok nicely?"
"Orders from FLEETCOMM," Dare said, holding up the data pad.
Osman's eyes narrowed slightly and the smile became a tight lipped frown. "And here I was hoping that enough of my time had already been wasted." She growled, and gestured for the Captain to bring it forward. "Hood couldn't have just sent me whatever the hell he wanted on a secure link?"
"No ma'am, I'm sorry. He wanted to be sure there was no chance of compromise," Dare shook her head as she approached, and showed no outward reaction to the Admiral's tone.
"I'm certain whatever it is must be very important then," Admiral Osman's voice was neutral, and Dare wasn't certain if she was being sarcastic or not. She didn't care at the moment. Within seconds, this op would either be blown or have the most difficult part under way.
She walked up to the front of the desk and handed it over to the Admiral. Dare held her breath as the target placed her hand on the DNA and fingerprint scanner and looked into the retinal one. A half second passed, and a confirmation tone came from the security devices.
The data-pad came to life, and then there was a tremendous flash of light as the screen erupted with a blinding luminosity and harsh, gargling white-noise screamed out of its speakers. As Osman's face transformed from annoyance to confusion to a mask of pain in a fraction of a second, Veronica lunged forward and grabbed Serin around the neck, slamming her face first into her desk and dragging the stunned woman across it. There was a sickening "crunch" as Osman's nose was broken and blood went everywhere. At the same time a part of Dare's ODST gauntlets flew off and specialized compartments den inside of sensor proofed sections of the armor opened up. Compressed air blew minute sensor scrambling devices into the air to take out Black Box's electronic sight and force him to reboot his camera systems while she sent her signal to Dutch and the others. The data-pad itself also sent out a high-powered broadcast signal as Buck and Rook blurred into action.
The two guards were already raising their rifles to shoot, but Buck and Rook, genetically augmented and hardened by years of warfare against the genocidal Covenant, were faster. CNT needles emerged from their gauntlets as they swatted down the men's rifles and stabbed them in the neck. The needles injected a potent cocktail of toxins derived from the curare plant and other such muscular inhibitors and rifles dropped from nerveless fingers as the paralytic poison went to work and everything from the guards' fingers to their eyes and lungs seized up.
Osman struggled and fought back despite being nearly blinded by the impromptu flash-bang and the disorientation and pain of the Captain's attack. Dare ducked out of the way of a wild right hook and caught a left cross in the palm of her hand. The impact rocked up her hand and through her shoulder, and the ONI Captain grunted. Osman's muscles bulged under her uniform and her arms tensed like coiled springs, but Dare knew how to handle this situation. She twisted about, reaching out and grabbing the other woman around the scruff of the neck. She wrenched the Admiral's left arm behind her back, slipped her hand up inside the crook of the elbow, and pulled. There was a wet "crack-pop" and Osman bit back a scream as her shoulder was violently dislocated.
While this was happening, Buck and Rook had secured the security troopers' fallen rifles and dashed towards Osman's desk. As Dare slammed her kneecap into the other woman's back and produced a set of zip-ties to tie her hands behind her back, the two ODSTs mantled over the desk and opened up more hidden compartments on their armor, pulling out A.I. data-chips and beginning to slide them into access ports. Black Box could be anywhere on this station, and Dare had little doubt that ONI's "top dog" A.I. would be more than able to compensate for their little bit of stage magic in here. The only way to stop him from deploying automated defenses and neutralizing everyone or the like would be for them to swarm him with other UNSC A.I.s and to drop something on his plate that he would have no choice but to prioritize over her team.
As the A.I.'s went to work, the signal that the activated data-pad had sent to the Section Zero A.I.s on the Leviathan had already been processed and distributed to the parties in charge of the next phase of the plan. "Clean Sweep!" she growled, and then started to read Osman her rights.
Lance Corporal Thomas Reynolds monitored the local slip-space traffic at his station. He was six hours into a nine hour shift, and desperately wishing that he had some more coffee on hand. His station monitor flickered and began to beep as he got a feedback alert large enough that it was automatically routed to Black Box. Reynolds looked over at it as the computer systems pulled it up and gave him a profile and data readouts. His eyes widened and he sucked in a breath, flipping open a transparent panel covering the so-called "panic button." Ten objects were emerging from slip-space less than forty thousand kilometers away from the station. Even if the proximity hadn't been cause for alarm, the fact that they'd moved in fast enough not for him to get any more of a warning than this could only mean one thing. While he'd never actually done battle with them, there was no mistaking the sleek lines and elegant curves of the ships that were popping back into reality a proverbial stone's throw from Ever Vigilant.
Alarms began to blare through the station as he slammed his fist down on the panic button. "Jesus!" he swore, before he shook his head and tried to get a hold of himself. "Covenant ships! Covenant ships coming into real-space," there was a flurry of activity, an strange, organized chaos as he called out what Black Box was already broadcasting to everyone's computer terminals. "Reading ten ships, nine CCS class battlecruisers and an assault carrier!" Horror welled up inside of him. This station wasn't known to the Separatists that were loyal to Thel 'Vadum, and forty thousand kilometers was about one-twentieth the maximum range of the weapons on a CCS class cruiser. Any moment now, he expected a barrage of plasma torpedoes and pulse-laser fire to slam into the shields of the station.
Two or three seconds passed before a second alert came through. More slip-space ruptures, an even larger group, but coming from the opposite direction. Confusion, relief, and a myriad of other emotions coursed through Reynolds as his hands twitched and sweat formed on his brow. What the hell was going on here?
From his secure location within Ever Vigilant, Black Box monitored the station. Thousands of electronic eyes and subroutines monitored personnel and the Admiral, looked over slip-space readouts and double checked calibrations of the station's defensive weaponry. He'd sprung into action microseconds after he'd analyzed what the Captain was doing, and reached the conclusion that some sort of assassination or arrest attempt was underway. Defensive weaponry was already sliding out of its mountings when his internal sensors for the Command Room went dark. The A.I. snarled and started a reboot sequence to try and clear up the interference. While he could fire blind and perforate every organic target in the room based off last known location, there was always the chance, however slim, that he might hit Admiral Osman. His core programming forbade such activities, forcing him to take the long route and wait until he could get visual confirmation on his targets before engaging.
He was halfway through the reboot cycle when a myriad slip-space feedbacks were shunted to him. Ten readings, close range, profiles matching known Covenant or Separatist capital class vessels. That was a priority alpha matter, and his programming compelled him to temporarily abandon Osman to begin orienting Ever Vigilant's external weaponry and bring excess power to the station's shields in preparation for the plasma torpedo and pulse laser onslaught that was sure to begin at any moment.
The expected attack didn't come, and the A.I. felt confusion, zooming in cameras and long range sensor nodes. He acquired a visual approximately three real-time seconds after the ships emerged from slip-space and began to acquire shooting solutions. He searched for everything that he could think of. Power spikes, the telltale buildup of energy along the ships' lateral lines, even a swarm of hundreds of Seraph class heavy fighters from the assault carrier in the center of the formation. Nothing happened. What the hell was going on here?
He felt a sensation akin to a scratching in the back of his mind and directed one of his subroutines towards it. To his surprise, there was another entity in the secure systems, locking down the mainframe and physically disconnecting it from the handful of executive physical links it had. He triple checked to make certain it wasn't a false positive, and not only did his subroutines confirm the presence of an unauthorized smart A.I., it confirmed the presence of three… no four…
With a sensation that might have been described as horror, Black Box realized the deception. He switched over to a full electronic warfare mode and began to prepare for the battle even as the myriad of other A.I.s finished sealing him off from the mainframe. Orders to stand down came from the intruders as they delivered encrypted protocols and messages to him. Hood himself was behind this, it seemed. Black Box spent a few nanoseconds contemplating what to do, but he knew it was nothing but stalling on his part. His programming compelled him with loyalty to ONI and to Osman… which might as well have been the same thing. The information on those archives had to be secured or purged, one of the two. He tried to ignore yet more close proximity slip-space breach warnings, but found himself torn and overwhelmed by millions of decisions that he would have to make at the same time that he would have to do battle with an ever increasing number of hostile A.I.s plugged directly into Admiral Osman's command consoles.
He began splitting his core routines; spinning off copies of himself as he shunted as much of the load to the secondary A.I.s as he could, and with the electronic equivalent of a growl, hurled himself at the intruding A.I.s with the expressed intent of deleting them from his systems.
Captain Lasky clasped his hands behind his back and nodded his head as the order came to his personal terminal, relayed from the Leviathan over an ultra-secured channel. "Roland, now!" he barked.
His A.I. didn't say anything, but the Infinity lurched forward, along with its escorts. The bridge crew was huddled at their stations, and the data-streams from the escort ships revealed much the same thing. Lord Hood had been worried about possible leaks of the operation getting back to Osman, and so no one really knew what was going on just yet. They were under the impression that this was merely one of several shake down maneuvers to make certain that the Infinity's repairs after Requiem were up to snuff. They were quite surprised when the slip-space jump was over before they had time to blink.
Lasky nodded his head. Infinity had come in close to Ever Vigilant, within ten thousand kilometers. This proximity would hopefully create a little bit of additional confusion as well as act as an intimidation factor once the station realized what the Infinity's real purpose was. There was also the more pragmatic effect of it bringing the station well inside of point-defense weapons range, which would enable them to swiss-cheese any hidden escape vessels before they could make a getaway.
"Roland, open comms. with Point of No Return and the rest of the fleet and send the crew their new orders," Lasky said, his voice calm despite his nervousness. One way or another, history was being made today and deep down, a part of him couldn't help but wonder at what was being set in motion here, what would be the end result of it all. "And get me a shooting solution on Point of No Return just in case their captain's a little more suicidal than expected." That last order got several dozen confused and alarmed gazes thrown at him from his bridge crew and from Commander Palmer.
"Already on it," Roland said. In nanoseconds, the Captain's orders had been carried out, broadcasting through the myriad of work stations. Official UNSC "Beyond Top Secret" icons appeared and flashed over the screens before Lord Hood's orders manifested. Hushed whispers and more than a few curses filled the air, gazes filled with shock and disbelief falling on Captain Lasky as Roland confirmed a shooting solution on the Prowler.
"Attention, UNSCS Point of No Return, this is UNSCS Infinity, on orders of UNSC High Command and the UEG, you are hereby ordered to power down your weapon systems and reactors, and you are to remain at your posts until otherwise notified. You have thirty seconds to begin to comply. If you fail to do so, we will open fire on you."
"Respectfully, Captain Lasky, what the hell are you doing?" came the response from Captain Lowell, the commander of the Prowler. "There's a goddamned Covenant fleet that just popped out of nowhere and—"
"We're here on orders to lock this station down and assume control of it." Lasky said. "Our orders come straight from Lord Hood and the President of the UEG, you should be receiving them now. As long as you comply, the Separatists will not open fire on you."
"You really expect me to believe that?"
"You're really in no position to argue," Roland spoke up. "So you can either power down and take the chance that the Separatists will blow you to smithereens, or you can keep powering up and be faced with the certainty that we will blow you to smithereens. Because let me tell you, my track record for obliterating slow moving or immobile targets is pretty good." There was a moment's pause. "Oh, and you now have ten seconds to begin to comply. Just so you know."
Another two seconds passed, and power levels onboard the corsair began to drop. Lasky nodded to himself and let out a breath that he didn't know he's been holding, before passing on orders to the helmsman.
He opened up a comm. channel with the leading Separatist vessel and the image of an armored Sangheili, sitting in the middle of a Separatist bridge, appeared in one of his monitors. Thel 'Vadumm leaned forward in his command channel.
"Concordant Dawn, this is Infinity," Lasky said. "We're in position, Point of No Return is complying with our demands and our teams are beginning their ingress."
"Good," the Arbiter said. "We will remain on station is case your rogue Admiral has any surprises up her sleeves. In the meanwhile, good hunting."
"We'll keep you advised," Tom said, and looked down at the mission feed from the Spartan Teams that were stacking up in the Leviathan's airlock. The first part of this little house-cleaning project was going well… now the rest was up to the Master Chief. The Spartan had the hard part. "As for hunting, well, Osman's actions have brought a particularly nasty element down on her." He couldn't resist a soft smile as it occurred to him that it was entirely possible that Thel didn't realize who was back from the dead, so to speak.
There was a look of mild confusion and bemusement on the Sangheili's face. Lasky's response was to press a button on his console and a full color hologram of a Spartan in green Mjolnir armor appeared at his station, complete with rank and designation.
Despite the gravity of the situation, the absolutely dumbfounded look on Thel's face made Lasky nearly laugh out loud.
The words echoed through the encrypted comm. channel that Blue and Crimson Teams were using and the eight Spartans exploded into action. They rushed out of the Leviathan's airlock and stormed down the corridor towards the station. ECM Jammers came online, scrambling security cameras and sensors. The very act would alert the ONI security teams that something was coming at them, but they wouldn't know what exactly.
It was a thirty meter distance, and an armored blast door stood between the Spartans and their goal. Ordinarily, it would have required more than dozen breaching charges to get through something like that. The Master Chief merely raised the M-7 Spartan Laser he was carrying. He lined up and squeezed the trigger. Armor melted and exploded outwards as chunks the size of a man's torso were ripped out and huge clouds of acrid, toxic steam filled the air. The weapon struck three more times in the course of two seconds, and the door virtually disappeared. 117 could hear men and women screaming in confusion and hurling themselves away from the door as he and his team charged through steam that would have seared the flesh off the bones of an unprotected human.
He slung the M-7 back over his shoulder and drew the APR-1 he was carrying. Time to put those upgrades Virgil had installed to good use. As one, he, Kelly and Fred raised their left arms and cradled their laser rifles with their right. Shimmering walls of hard-light appeared in front of them as they stormed into the security checkpoint.
ONI security scrambled. Those that weren't on the ground frantically scrabbling to get away from the door and the intense heat and scalding steam were trying to assess the situation. Some raised weapons and fired, others dove behind consoles, and still others were frozen, their bodies locking up in confusion as they simultaneously received alerts of the Separatist fleet, the arrival of the Infinity's task force, and the realization that what had just kicked in the door was a team of power armored super-humans. All the while, Spartan-Time gave 117 and his siblings ample time to observe and choose the best course of action. The security teams appeared to be moving as though they were trapped in waist-deep mud and tungsten rounds seemed to crawl through the air as 117 worked in tandem with Sentinel to prioritize threats.
Bullets pinged and deflected off of the hard-light shields as heavy, automated weapons deployed from the ceiling and began to spit hypersonic slugs of tungsten at them. Forty-millimeter kinetic kill vehicles thudded against the shield and slammed into walls and ceilings. Those were the priority threats, and they had to be neutralized before the ricochets killed the security troopers or obliterated one of the consoles they needed intact. The three Spartans opened fire on those, crimson laser pulses filling the air with crackling whines as the railguns exploded or melted into super-heated slag. A few rounds managed to slip past the hard-light and slammed against the Master Chief and his shield bar dropped to 80% as the anti-material rounds thudded against the floor, several of them shredded into pieces by the violent collision against the force-fields of the Mjolnir armor.
058 and Crimson-Lead stormed in behind them, taking advantage of the confusion among the security teams. They leveled MA6's loaded with high-caliber stun rounds and amidst the thunder of railgun slugs and the whining of laser pulses, the sharp, staccato cracks of the assault rifles could be heard. Security troopers fell left and right as Linda and Richards pumped rounds into their targets. Out of the corner of his eye, the Master Chief could see a security trooper lunging for a manual panic button. His neural link sent a command to his armor as he shifted about slightly, vaporizing another defensive turret as he stuck his left arm out towards the man. The trooper froze as the constraint field formed around him, and a flick of 117's wrist sent him caterwauling through the air and into a wall on the far side of the room. The trooper fell to the floor with a groan and remained where he was.
The rest of Crimson Team came through and more stun rounds ripped through the air. The few resisting members of the security teams dropped as others began to throw down their weapons and raised their hands into the air. The Master Chief's motion tracker and HUD were showing fewer and fewer hostile threats as he destroyed one of the few remaining railgun turrets and began to sprint towards the primary communications console.
A few more shots from his teams and all resistance ceased. The entire fight, from the moment that they'd begun breaching until the final defensive measure had been neutralized, had taken ten and a half seconds. The Spartan vaulted over the console and quickly ducked down behind it. He pulled out Sentinel's chip and inserted the A.I. into the system. While there were no command functions that could be accessed from such a remote part of the station, and all vital data catches were going to be hard-access only, there was a P.A. system built into this place. More than anything right now, that was what he needed. The personnel on this station were going to be confused and panicky, and if he didn't act fast, one of them was inevitably going to do something stupid.
It meant losing the element of surprise to some degree, but in this case, that was a worthwhile tradeoff for dispelling that confusion and getting the bulk of the security personnel to stand down. Between his own hacking skills and Sentinel's abilities, it took him only moments to get into the system.
"We have audio to the entire station, and I've managed to get a visual link to most of the primary command areas." Sentinel said. "Black Box is fighting back, but he's distracted right now, the appearance of the Separatists and the other A.I's swarming him are slowing him down."
"See if you can pinpoint his physical location," the Master Chief said, before he activated the P.A. system. There was the crackling of the comm. coming online, and the console camera focused on him as his image was suddenly broadcast throughout Ever Vigilant.
"Attention all UNSC and ONI personnel onboard Ever Vigilant," he said. "This is Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Spartan-117. Remain calm and stay at your posts. On orders of Lord Admiral Terrance Hood, pursuant to UNSC Protocol 215.689 Section 2-D, we are here with a warrant for the arrest of Admiral Serin Osman. The Admiral stands accused of misappropriation of UNSC special warfare assets, unlawful circumvention of UNSC command protocols, alteration and falsification of UNSC special warfare orders and AARs, and the attempted murder of UNSC and UEG personnel." He paused for a moment to let that sink into the personnel hearing him. "Under UNSC Protocol Alpha-Six-One-Seven, this station is under lockdown and its data-caches are to be seized pending an official investigation. Any who attempt to interfere with our mission will be treated as accessories to the Admiral's crimes. Any who open fire on my teams will be treated as enemy combatants and dealt with accordingly."
With that he cut off the feed and pulled Sentinel. He slid the A.I. back into his slot and signaled for Blue and Crimson Teams to fall in. Additional ODST and Marine security teams from the Leviathan would hold the ingress point and begin the process of securing the rest of the station. For now they had a detained package to pick up and escort to a holding cell.
Private First Class Paul Michaels was hastily strapping on armor, sealing his helmet, and trying to prepare himself to beat back what he was certain was going to be a Covenant incursion, his mind trying to quell the rising tension at the realization that there was a Covenant fleet parked outside the space station. He blinked sweat out of his green eyes, his throat dry and cracking. He'd been too young to fight in The War, and had signed up about a year before the New Phoenix incident. The thought of actually facing the monsters that had nearly driven Humanity to extinction was an unsettling one, to say the least. His hands trembled as he loaded his rifle and visions of a "purist" Sangheili or an enraged Jiralhanae bearing down on him, baying for his blood, filled his mind.
He heard the P.A. system crackle to life and the holo-tank at the far end of the armory came online. He'd been expecting to see a picture of the Admiral, or of Captain Roberts, the head of security. Instead he saw the image of a giant clad in a suit of green and black armor. His eyes widened as he recognized a Spartan. A voice came over the speakers. It was a voice that he remembered from press releases and sound-bites, the voice of a man that had been held up as the thrice savior of Humanity, an individual that had become a living legend. A man, a hero, so lethal in battle that the Covenant, the monsters that had pushed Humanity to the very brink of oblivion, had come to regard him as the physical manifestation of the Angel of Death.
Michaels looked back and forth at the rest of his unit, watching as the faces of the men and women in it mirrored his own. Confusion, disbelief, uncertainty, and a hundred other emotions were written on their visages as the Spartan-II announced who he was, and why he was here. Michaels had never met with the Admiral personally. He'd seen her once or twice, from a distance, watched her chew out an officer over the comm. or a vid-screen, but he couldn't say that he knew her. Was it possible, what the Spartan was saying? That she'd committed what were tantamount to war-crimes? That she'd acted against the UNSC in a time when it was still trying to rebuild and lick its wounds from a three decade long war of extermination? Surely… surely that wasn't possible? Yes, ONI had its underhanded methods, its "cloak and dagger tactics" as Sergeant Dax, his squad leader, had often said… but it had the UNSC's best interests at heart. It had to. Right? That was what they'd been told from the first day that they'd been sent out here. That's what they were supposed to be doing. Protecting Humanity from the shadows, doing what was necessary.
"Any who attempt to interfere with our mission will be treated as accessories to the Admiral's crimes. Any who open fire on my teams will be treated as enemy combatants and dealt with accordingly."
The hologram terminated a moment later, only to be replaced by a holographic image of an arrest warrant bearing the official seal of FLEETCOMM and Admiral Hood's signature. Michaels felt a jittery breath slip past his teeth and he tried to force himself to swallow, his lips suddenly felt dry. He'd been trained to fight the enemies of Humanity, of the UNSC. Covenant. Insurrectionists. Pirates. Even a few training simulations against the Flood and the Prometheans. But there had never been a training simulation for something like this. If what the Master Chief had said was true, the Admiral might have been guilty of treason, during what was ostensibly still a time of war. But was he telling the truth? What was going on here? Who did he trust, what was he supposed to do?
"Come on!" he heard Sergeant Dax's voice growl. He was a mountain of a man, just a hair below two meters in height, and more than one person had joked that he'd obviously been getting a little gene tweaking on the side, given his build. "Get your asses kited up and make for that security checkpoint! If we hurry, we can head them off and drive them back!"
"Are you insane?" it was Sergeant Kelly, one of the other squad leaders. She marched up towards the man, her eyes narrowed. "Didn't you hear what was just said?"
"Yeah," Dax's voice was cold, uncompromising, dangerous. "I heard that there's a Covenant fleet parked outside our station, and that we've got intruders onboard. Now get your squad in gear and get ready to repel their asses!"
"A Covenant fleet and the Infinity," Kelly fired back. "And they're not shooting each other to pieces… Something's going on here. Something way the hell bigger than us, Dax." She tapped a gauntleted finger against his chest armor.
"So you're going to let someone waltz in and take over the most important ONI installation in the entire goddamned galaxy because of one hologram, one speech, and a fancy looking picture," he gestured towards the warrant that was on display. "An A.I. could conjure that up in a nanosecond, and for all we know, Hood's decided he wants to be king of the mountain again!" He leaned down at her. "So get you and your squad out there with mine or I'll make sure the Admiral tosses you out the nearest airlock when this is all over!"
Kelly was silent for a moment, and Michaels actually wondered if she was backing down, but then she shook her head. "Your funeral, Dax. We're still in a war state, which means as far as the military goes, Lord Hood never stopped being king of the goddamned mountain. And even if this isn't a legit op, you're still talking about taking a bunch of regular security troops out to fight Sierra-117, the Master-fucking-Chief!" She made a deliberate show of flicking her rifle's safety on and walking back towards her squad, who were all standing at their stations, unmoving.
"Never figured you for a coward. Guess you don't have any balls after all." Dax sneered as he finished grabbing some grenades from a dispenser rack.
"Maybe, but at least I'm not thinking with them all the time," Kelly fired back. "You're going to take what, twenty men and women, out to face the most dangerous soldier in Humanity's Special Forces? A guy who takes on Jiralhanae Chieftains and the goddamned Flood, blows them to teeny, tiny pieces," she held her left thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, "and calls it just another day in the office? You've got what, a few dozen assault rifles, and a few concussion grenades? You really think that'll stop a Spartan on the warpath?"
Michaels had to admit, he sort of agreed with Sergeant Kelly on that last bit. A shudder worked its way down his spine. He'd grown up on the stories of the Spartans. The Master Chief and his legendary "Blue Team." The headlines had trumpeted their successful missions, where they'd obliterated Covenant armies, rescued civilians trapped behind enemy lines, taken on impossible odds, kicked the proverbial Devil in the balls and lived to boast about it. He knew that a lot of it had to be propaganda, the UNSC focusing on something, anything, to distract the populace from the constant defeat and the fact that Humanity was losing, on average, two planets a month during the war. But if even only half the stuff that they'd talked about was true (to say nothing about the Halo installations), well… and that wasn't even considering the fact that the latest generation Mjolnirs were supposed to require multiple shots from heavy anti-tank weaponry to crack them open. He gazed down at his rifle. The MA6 series was powerful, but it might as well have shot spitballs for all the good it would do him against what he would be facing if he went out there.
"You swore an Oath." Dax growled.
"I didn't swear an Oath to get the lives of my squad thrown away in some suicidal, doomed holding action defending Admiral Osman from the most dangerous thing in this system that walks on two legs, not when one side's tossing around accusations of war-crimes." Kelly said, as she leaned back against the wall of the armory. "If the Admiral doesn't like it, she can space me. But I won't get my people butchered in a battle where I don't know who's right, who's wrong, and where we won't make much of a difference."
"Traitor," he growled as he headed for the door. "Anyone who remembers their goddamned job is welcome to come with me. Everyone else… we'll sort out later."
Michaels looked around at the other members of his squad. He looked over at Lockheart, and she stared back at him. She nodded her head, and flicked her safety on. Toliver did the same. But there were others, like Lance Corporal Smith and PFC West, who fell in line with their Sergeant. All told, about two dozen security troopers from various squads moved to follow Dax. Michaels licked his lips behind his helmet. What did he do? Was it possible that this was all an elaborate diversion? An attempt to remove a rival or someone who might have unfortunate information on Admiral Hood—just about everyone knew that ONI kept files on UNSC senior officers, and Michaels had heard enough rumors about the information on those files to never even want to touch those things—and that by sitting here, doing nothing, he would allow an unlawful power grab by Admiral Hood? On the other hand, was it possible that the Master Chief had spoken the truth? That Osman was guilty of the crimes he'd accused her of, and that by joining in the defense, he'd be aiding and abetting a war criminal? To say nothing of throwing himself in the line of fire of an individual who had a body count with more than five zeros behind it?
He took a deep breath, and prayed that he was making the right decision as he flicked the safety of his rifle on, and stepped back deeper into the armory.
Dare picked up a pistol from one of the fallen security officers as she unsealed the door leading into the Admiral's chambers. Outside, Dutch, Mickey and Romeo stood over a quartet of unconscious bodies and were hastily securing additional weaponry and administering anti-toxins.
"Hurry up and get in here!" she hissed. While she believed that most of the station's personnel would stand down and comply with the official orders, there was no sense taking chances. With an escort of eight Spartans, transporting Osman was going to be a lot less likely to get… complicated… "And get the antidotes into those two," she gestured towards Osman's personal bodyguards. Her team was under orders to preserve the lives of UNSC personnel wherever possible, and if they didn't get an antidote in the next couple of minutes, those two would be looking at brain damage from oxygen deprivation.
The trio bolted back inside, dragging the unconscious security troopers with them, and Veronica sealed the door behind them. She heard a faint chuckle, laced with pain, and she looked down at Osman. Serin's face was impassive, but pale, her pupils dilated.
"I am thrilled to know that you find the fact that you're going to be spending the rest of your natural life in an eight by ten cell amusing," Dare said as Rook began lockdown procedures.
"You think…" another pain-laced laugh. "You think I haven't anticipated something like this, Captain? That I haven't contemplated the possibility of Hood forgetting his place and launching a palace coup against me?" her face twisted into a mask of cold hatred. "I assure you, Captain, I have trump cards here that will ensure that this," she gestured behind her back, "is nothing more than a temporary inconvenience."
The P.A. system crackled to life and she heard the Master Chief speak. Osman's face registered surprise as she heard him address her troops, openly telling them what was going on, but it was only momentary, gone in a flash, the mask back in place. Dare narrowed her eyes and walked over towards the other woman as the most of her team took up covering positions on the door while Dutch and Romeo covered Osman. There was a flash from the desk, and a battle-armored knight appeared on the hologram tank. The A.I. removed her helmet and looked up at the Commander.
"Captain Dare, most of the security troops are staying put, but I am detecting strange readings on some of the local sensors." The A.I., named Naobi, said. "Thermal and visual sensors are clean, but I'm still picking up movement."
"Large and heavy, but moving fast. I'm detecting what appears to be thirteen or so independent movement signatures, but I could be wrong, there's jamming interference and Black Box is attempting to obstruct our collective efforts."
Dare's mind whirled and in moments reached a single conclusion: Mjolnir armor with an active stealth suite module. She powered up her comm., burning through some of the localized jamming.
"Blue-Lead, this is Custodes-Lead," she said.
"Blue-Lead here, go ahead."
"Most security teams are staying put, but the Package is playing a trump card, picking up at least thirteen movement signatures, reading negative on the thermal and the visual spectrums. Most likely a private S-IV defense force using camo mods."
"Affirmative," 117 responded. "We'll be ready for them."
Dare stared back down at Osman, and the woman's smirk had returned, and she started to laugh once again.
"An outdated relic and his aging siblings? That's what you brought with you? You think you can take me down with a handful of brainwashed, obsolete wind-up toys?"
"I do have the Master Chief, yes," Dare crossed her arms over her chest. "But he's hardly the only thing I brought with me." The Captain's eyes narrowed behind her helmet. "I don't think you've really thought this through, Admiral. There's no scenario here where you win, no hypothetical outcome where you come out on top. Even if your S-IV's do manage to overcome the most dangerous soldiers in Humanity's arsenal, get in here, and free you before I decide to put a bullet in your head. There's a Separatist task force and the Infinity's flotilla parked outside your little palace, with orders to annihilate anything that comes near this place or even looks like an escape pod or evacuation vessel. It's not just Hood that's after you. The entire UNSC is being put on notice, as is the UEG. As of five minutes ago, you became a persona non grata to the entirety of civilized Human space." She leaned forward a bit, but still stayed well out of range of any attempted attacks that Osman might throw at her. "You. Have. Lost."
"Not yet!" Osman hissed, her eyes narrowed into slits.
"ONI-" Mickey started to say.
"I am ONI!"
"Yeah, and that kind of attitude is exactly why your ass is getting bounced out of the command chair," Dutch growled, his weapon never leaving the Admiral. Osman shot him a look that could have blasted through a super-carrier, but Dutch didn't flinch. The Captain herself was tempted to shake her head. If nothing else, she was grateful that her ODST gear had recording instruments on it. At least they had a record of what all was happening in here and someone was bound to get a hoot out of it.
She focused her attention back on Naobi. "Naobi, status?" Dare asked.
"We're still facing resistance from Black Box and a few secondary A.I.s, but we are overcoming them. Blue Team and Crimson Team are uploading additional A.I.s as they're moving." The knight nodded her head. "We're locking them out, one system at a time, and forcing them to shut down, but they still have control over some of the primary systems."
"Secured for the moment."
The door behind Osman's desk opened and Dare moved inside. She still had a couple more A.I.s on her, and it was time for them to get that data copied and onto secure data drives that couldn't be corrupted if Black Box somehow wrested control back from them. There might be incriminating evidence of other illegal ONI activities, as well as dirt on other UNSC personnel. They needed to make certain who had done what, to purge them from command if necessary, or at the very least, keep an eye on them in case one of them decided to do something monumentally stupid.
"Keep that door covered while I get to work," she said.
"Affirmative, ma'am," Buck said, his team shifting about, Rook and Romeo moving back behind Osman's desk. It wouldn't provide much in the way of cover, but Osman's S-IV's, if they managed to breech the door, might be a little hesitant to shoot at Osman's personal work station and open fire on the ONI database.
The Master Chief's eyes narrowed a fraction behind his visor. So that was 019's trump card. Her own personal S-IV team. Teams, he reminded himself. There were at least three fireteams, and those were just the ones that Dare had picked up. Thirteen total it was believed. Probably two standard teams and one heavy-weapons team. He admitted to himself that the implications were unsettling. Off the record super-soldiers weren't exactly a new trick up ONI's sleeve, Crimson Team's mere existence as S-III's was a testament to that fact, to say nothing of his own career. But actual confirmation of such a strike force… how many were there in total? Did Osman have more seeded throughout the UNSC? How had she acquired, armed, and equipped them? Questions to be answered later, he decided. For now, he sent a secured transmission back to the Leviathan and the Infinity detailing that little revelation, and then his mind focused on the here and now.
Security teams that were still moving had been warned. They knew they would be treated as hostiles if they were outside of their designated posts, let alone if they attempted to intercept and attack him, his siblings, or Crimson Team. Which meant that there was nothing more to be gained by advertising their presence. Time to level the playing field.
He sent a series of encrypted signals to the others, and as one, the two teams faded from view. As the active camo set in, the Master Chief's eyes roamed over his HUD. The VISR tech built into the latest generation helmets could sense movement and could generate an image based on said movement; a rough, super-imposed outline of where it suspected a target was. Not as good as a true visual, but far and wide better than nothing at all; especially given the newer stealth suite modules tended to have jammers built into them.
Encrypted communications were relayed back and forth between the teams, code words and flashes as they checked their sensors and every possible nook, corner, and alcove. Enemy weapons were an unknown, so they would assume high power until proven otherwise (the reinforced nature of Ever Vigilant's internal walls meant that over-penetration and striking something critical was less of an issue than it might otherwise be). Likewise, the experience level of the enemy was unknown. He doubted that 019's personal troops had seen the sort of action that Blue or Crimson Teams had, but given they already had a numerical advantage, he would assume they were good enough to be a threat, he thought as he cranked the APR-1 up to maximum power.
It was far better to overestimate an enemy than underestimate him.
They took the time to stop and upload two more secondary support A.I.'s to try and overwhelm the local ONI defenses and try and secure the local motion trackers. Then they were on their way again.
As they moved, the Master Chief ran back through everything that he'd done over the past five days. All the training wargames with Crimson, Shadow, Majestic, and the other Spartan-IV teams. Everything he'd learned about them, what they could do, how they reacted when under fire and how they tried to counterattack when put into various situations. That knowledge was going to be critical in the coming fight.
There was a soft beeping from his HUD, and a message popped up from Ranger, one of the A.I.'s that they'd just uploaded. He had obtained control of the motion trackers of this section of the station, and was patching the information through to the two Spartan teams. He could see loads of jamming coming from a sector that was about one hundred meters in front of them, just behind a set of blast doors. It was a security checkpoint, the second-to-final one before Osman's command room. The Spartan sent some commands through his neural net and cross referenced the section with a map that he had. The checkpoint was a roughly diamond shaped room, about thirty meters at its widest, ten at its narrowest. There was one entrance, one exit, and the ONI S-IV's were doubtless going to be set up covering those points. They were waiting, he realized, to deal with him and his teams and then they'd move on Osman's location.
He reviewed the schematics, his enhanced brain processing the information faster than an ordinary human ever could. There was a cross shaped junction right behind the security checkpoint, that lead back to a barracks and an armory, with the main corridor going back another hundred and fifty meters towards the final security checkpoint. These S-IV's were entrenched and prepared for a static battle. The first thing to do would be to take their plan, shred it, and throw them into confusion and disarray. Once they'd done that, they could focus on taking them down quickly and ruthlessly, before they could manage any sort of reformation. A plan quickly began to form in the Master Chief's head, and he ran it by Sentinel.
"What do you think?" he asked the A.I.
"Well, it'll muss up the wallpaper, but somehow I don't think that's a concern right now. It should give us the element of surprise." 117 swore he could sense a bit of amusement in the A.I.'s voice and he felt a soft pain in his chest, imagining for a moment that the words were being spoken by a more feminine voice. He cast the pain aside.
He relayed orders via their encrypted signal flashes and a series of slow, deliberate gestures that he knew the teams' sensors would pick up. Crimson and Blue teams split at another cross shaped junction just before the checkpoint. Blue team went right, Crimson to the left. These paths, if they'd continued to follow them, would have led the teams to a mess hall and a medical bay, respectively. But they had no intention of following them any further than they had to. Instead, they went down until they were close to the middle of the security checkpoint room, with Blue Team just a bit further down than Crimson was.
The Master Chief attached his APR-1 to its magnetic holster and drew the M-7 Spartan Laser once more, orienting it to where the bolts would fly into the heart of where the hostile teams would most likely be, based off the movement signatures. He double checked the power cell: sixty-six percent. More than enough for what he had in mind. If the enemy had the only door in so heavily guarded that an assault through that door was going to be untenable, the best thing to do was to make your own ingress point. Time to do a little interior redecorating.
He sent the "go" signal to Crimson Lead, and Richards and he acted at the same time. His hard-light shield manifested in front of him and there was a soft whine from the M-7. A half second later, it unleashed its first bolt, and then another, and another. His motion tracker came alive with a mass of movement signatures, some false positives, others the genuine article, as he and Richards unleashed nearly a dozen shots between the two of them, creating a horrific cross fire of anti-material laser fire. When they were finished, three seconds after they'd started, there was a massive two and a half meter wide hole in both sides of the security checkpoint. Argon gas streamed down from automated fire suppression units as the Chief stormed in. 104 was just ahead and to his right, using his hard-light shield to cover 058 and 087 as they came in behind them, all of them firing at the renegades.
He could see the hazy golden outline of the ONI S-IV's through the streams of gas as they fell back and gave defilade covering fire, and the air was alive with M-7 and APR bolts, grenades, KKVs, explosive charges, and bullets. VISR mods kicked in automatically, filtering the plumes of freezing cold gas out of his sight as he and the others began tagging the enemy teams. Two corpses were already on the ground, more or less vaporized from the chest up, and 117 leveled the M-7 at a console that one of the surviving rogues was hiding behind and firing over, and the whining crack of a laser bolt split the air. The beam obliterated the console and washed over the lead S-IV, whose shields had already been damaged by the close proximity of the M-7's earlier attack. As the third beam struck home, the cloaked cyborg tried to run. He sprinted down towards the end of the room, firing back over his shoulder with a magazine fed, automatic grenade launcher. Grenades exploded around Blue Team, sending drops of white-hot incendiary material flying through the air, or super-heated shrapnel propelled by shaped charges. Some bounced off the hard-light shields or detonated harmlessly against them, and overall, 117's defenses weathered the storm with ease. Another bolt struck the fleeing S-IV and blew a massive hole straight through him. The S-IV collapsed and Sentinel confirmed a kill while the remaining ten rushed back out the back of the security checkpoint under a storm of fire.
All the while the A.I.s had been busy analyzing the renegades' weapon loadouts. There were a couple of MA6 carbines, but for the most part, the enemy teams were using much heavier weaponry: automatic grenade launchers, shotguns modified with sickle or drum magazines and explosive slugs, and three of the hostile S-IV's each carried a heavy M-99 Stanchion, the Master Chief noted. A handful of the static defenses that were still under Black Box's control were spinning up, and hypersonic slugs ripped through the air as laser bursts transformed some of the turrets into shrapnel and filled the air with a shower of super-heated sparks and metal.
Crimson Team continued their assault as well, a veritable sea of red colored death harrying the retreating S-IV's as they bolted down the corridor. Shields crumbled under the assault and some direct hits on the armor of one of the renegades blew a steaming hole in a shoulder pauldron, while another one's back armor warped and melted as a three round burst slammed into it. 117 began to shift to one side as a ceiling turret took a bead on him and angled his hard-light shield to intercept fire as best he could. Some of the KKVs still got through, though. One round slammed into his shoulder and a second one ripped through his M-7 before a burst from Fred's APR reduced the defensive turret to wreckage. The Master Chief let the destroyed Spartan Laser fall to the floor and drew his rifle as he mantled over a half-slagged security console. Black Box sealed the door behind the ONI Spartans as they fled out the door, shields crackling and armor explosively fragmenting under a barrage of laser fire, and the last couple of active defensive turrets were destroyed.
"Crimson-Lead," he barked, and gestured towards the door. Richards was already on it, orienting her M-7 on the blast door. "Sentinel, get Ranger and the others on those static defenses, I want them offline or on our side now!"
He got a beep of acknowledgement from the A.I.s, and a part of him distantly wondered what Black Box hoped to achieve by all of this.
Richards charged her weapon up as 117 relayed the ongoing information to Custodes-Lead. While he doubted that Dare and her associates had anything to worry about, on the off chance that over-penetration did occur, he didn't want a blue on blue happening. The exit door disintegrated as he and his teams charged forward. Most of the hostile S-IV's were already at the junction, using it as cover as they returned fire on their attackers. However a couple of the renegades were still out in the hallways, still vulnerable. Threat identifiers appeared on his HUD as a couple of the renegades hurled grenades and fired their weapons as they backpedaled down the corridor. As the cloaking fields covering the explosives dissipated, he recognized them as standard issue frag grenades. A by the book tactic, one that might be effective in buying time against normal infantry or assault troops… but against an opponent that was encased in powered combat armor and an energy shield like a Sangheili or a Spartan, it was a less than ideal choice.
He and Fred took point and hunkered down behind their hard-light shields for a moment as the grenades detonated. The large, glowing barriers blocked most of the white-hot fragments and the concussion waves and they were once again moving before the echo of the detonations had even begun to fade. Linda and Kelly fired from behind them, the light-speed pulses slamming into the two closest ONI troopers that were packing Stanchion rifles. However, both managed to get back behind cover before their defenses were compromised.
117 and his teams sent a combination of precision shots and suppression fire down the corridor, and the Chief noted that his cell-charge was down to about half of its maximum capacity. Graced by Spartan Time, he was also able to get a crystal clear picture of which troops bolted in which direction as they reached the junction. Six split off to the left, headed for the barracks, while the remaining four headed for the armory. Decades of battle experienced came to mind, and the Master Chief reached a conclusion on what to do in an instant. If they went after one group, they'd leave their backs exposed to getting flanked, or worse, hit by a hammer-and-anvil tactic. They'd have to split as well, and leave a rear guard just in case there were more teams.
"Crimson to the left, Blue to the right, Crimson-Lead, 058, cover our backs," he barked over the encrypted channel.
His teams carried out their instructions to the letter. They needed to stay on the offensive, keep the ONI S-IV's and whatever reinforcements they might get off balance and reeling, stop them from being able to get any sort of defensive strongpoint up and running. A soft warbling let him know that his hard-light shield was reaching its limits, the capacitors only having enough power to run it for about twenty seconds before it had to be shut down and allowed to recharge. He shut it down as he stacked up against the corner of the junction while Crimson-Two did the same thing opposite of him. Motion trackers were still alive with jamming, and it was growing more intense by the minute, despite Sentinel's attempts to keep it cleared up, and so he stuck the APR-1 around the corner, using the smart-link on the gun to check around the corner.
As the blueprints had indicated, the junction opened up about twenty meters further down, branching off into three paths, each leading to the various barracks and the like. It was clearly meant to allow Osman to rush additional reinforcements to her command room in the event of hostile incursion. Hopefully, most of the security troops would continue to heed his warning and stay where they were. If they didn't… well, he'd deal with them if that situation arose. As it stood, he had some renegades to put down.
At his signal, they began to pursue their opponents, ignoring the depowered defenses that now hung from the ceiling. Kelly, her shield fresh and unused, moved forward towards the next part of the junction, while he and Fred waited for their shields to recharge. Linda and Crimson-Lead hung back, their weapons trained down the corridor as the advanced guard moved forward. Kelly reached the junction, checked around it with her gun, and then bounded across the corridor. She waited two seconds, and then signaled for them to move forward.
He and 104 did so, racing up the corridor to the junction. The Master Chief reached the junction, and once more began to pick up the faint highlights of movement through the walls. He stuck his APR around the corner, aimed via the smart-link, and caught an S-IV that was exposed. He squeezed the trigger and sent a burst of pulsed laser fire down the corridor. Fast as the ONI Spartan might have been, she was no match for the speed of light, and caught the barrage square in the face. She ducked back around the corner as he and 104 started their advance.
"Blue-Lead, contacts incoming, make about twenty regular ONI security, coming from the second barracks." Linda's voice was cold and dispassionate.
"Neutralize them. Blue-Three, assist with mop up." He responded as he hunched down and moved forward.
"Roger." The two women said at the same time, and Kelly twisted to face down the new threat. As the door to the second barracks opened, the air came alive with sharp cracks from 087's laser rifle. The Master Chief had a split-second image of the lead trooper, a hulking brute of a man, as he caught a bolt straight in the head.
The man's helmet was explosively ripped apart and his head simply ceased to exist as steam and ash filled the air. Super-heated armor went everywhere and one man shrieked in agony as part of the lead soldier's helmet cut through his arm like a scythe. The stricken trooper's rifle started to fall to the ground as he clutched at his stump. The lead man's headless corpse started to topple to the ground in seeming slow motion as Linda and Kelly pressed the attack. The security troopers were already trying to scatter, but an S-II had reflexes that were more than an order of magnitude quicker. Five more fell to precision shots before the point man's corpse hit the deck.
An S-IV leaned out and began to unload a barrage of KKVs from her Stanchion rifle. The rifle was modified slightly, the Chief could see, designed to draw power directly from the Mjolnir armor that the Spartan was wearing. He raised his shield and fired around it as he advanced. A couple of slugs slipped through the gap between the hard-light barrier and the Spartan-II himself. 117 grunted as the rounds slammed into him and his shield bar dropped by ten percent. He shifted his stance slightly and fired a single shot from his APR-1. The bolt struck the M-99 and the railgun exploded violently. To her credit, the S-IV reacted with impressive speed, ducking back behind cover as another two bolts clipped her. She tossed the cable connecting her destroyed weapon to her armor aside and the Master Chief suspected she was pulling another gun as he and Fred thundered towards her and her comrades.
There should have been more return fire, though, he knew that much. As Linda and Kelly fired on the standard security forces from behind their cloaks, he ran his eyes over his HUD. There was plenty of jamming in the area, with all the false positives on his motion tracker, but there still should have been more return fire. One of the S-IV's fired around a corner, sending a barrage of grenades at him and Fred.
"Sentinel, I need eyes on—" he was cut off as he heard a hiss to his immediate right and saw part of the wall start to peel away. Trap! His mind screamed to him. Thoughts became actions as the cyborg twisted about, flashing an alarm signal to 104 as he turned to face the new threat, keeping his shield angled as best he could to cover both the known threat and the one opening up before him.
He caught a flash of blue-white light and understood the danger instantly. One of these S-IV's had a plasma sword. Probably a trophy taken from a dead Sangheili. It didn't matter, though. The other Spartan lunged forward, blade coming in from below in a vicious uppercut. A previously inactive rail turret came to life and the Master Chief was forced to make a split second decision as anti-material rounds hammered at his shield. He kept the shield where it was and shifted about to try and minimize the damage the sword blow would inflict.
The energy blade hammered his shields, dropping them by a solid half as he shifted out of the way and dropped his APR to avoid having it get bisected by the inevitable backhand swipe. He contemplated using the constraint field to immobilize the S-IV, but decided against it. It wouldn't keep his adversary pinned long enough for his battered shields to recharge, nor could he incapacitate his foe, keep the hard-light shield up, and still go for his weapon. That left one other option: get inside of his foe's effective attack range. He shoulder charged the renegade Spartan, driving his fist into the man's chest and slammed him into the back of the alcove. The sword descended once more before the Chief got out of the line of fire of the rail turret. He shifted to the side as much as he could, deflecting the blow, but it was still enough to take out his depleted energy shield.
Alarms warbled in his helmet as secondary passive defenses that Virgil had installed activated. A dull orange glow enveloped the Mjolnir suit as supplemental hard-light armor phased into existence and his cloaking suite faded to feed more energy back into the recharge cycle. While not as effective as the shielding system itself, the hard-light battle armor afforded the Spartan-II a little bit of extra durability while his shields recharged themselves. He slammed the hard-light shield up against the S-IV's sword-arm, keeping it pinned against the wall as he rained down a ferocious series of lightning-fast blows on the renegade. The S-IV attempted to push back and to bring his knee up between 117's legs. John grunted at the impact and drove his right boot down on top of the S-IV's other foot, forcing his opponent further off balance as he smashed his fist up against the head of his adversary.
Distantly, he heard 104 destroy the ceiling turret and knew that he had to hurry. While these S-IV's weren't as experienced or as well-equipped as his team was, they had a numbers advantage and they were going to be smart enough to use it. The Master Chief was a blur as he shifted around as best he could, raining in a dozen blows over the course of less than two seconds. The shields were slick, like greased ice, making grappling nearly impossible until he got them down. The other Spartan was panicking slightly and trying frantically to get the leverage he needed to free his sword-arm. 117 knew he had to capitalize on that, use it to his advantage to negate the edge his opponent held. He caught an awkward punch that was thrown at him and tried his best to pin it back against the alcove, struggling to hold onto it. Visor stared into visor as he applied pressure to his foe's hand and then slammed his head forward like a battering ram. It finally did the trick and the S-IV's shields went down.
Now! 117 thought to himself. Reflexes honed by decades of fighting, further enhanced by the A.I. working in unison with his mind, caused artificial and organic muscles to explode into action. He brought his knee up into the man's abdomen with bone-shattering force and then reached out with his right hand, slamming it against the renegade's neck. The CNT and other defensive layers of a Mjolnir armor suit were normally quite good at protecting against blunt force trauma, but there was only so much it could do to stop a blow of that kind of power. The Master Chief felt the man's adam's apple and trachea collapse as he spread his fingers and gripped the renegade around the throat. The wet, choked gurgles of the S-IV's desperate attempts to suck down air through his collapsed throat were drowned out by a sickening crunch as the S-II crushed his neck into powder.
The ONI Spartan went limp and the Master Chief took just enough time to secure the plasma sword and grab his APR as he shields began to recharge.
"Blue Lead, hostile neutralized, moving out!" he growled.
Black Box found himself struggling to hold off the attacks and the sheer swarm of hostile A.I.s that were running around his systems. He was fighting back as best he could, using his clones and his secondary A.I.s to try and keep up, changing privileges, trying to isolate and cut off his attackers and keep his own firewalls up and running, but it was growing more difficult by the nanosecond. More and more hostiles were being uploaded into Ever Vigilant's systems by both the Master Chief and his group, as well as the ODST team that was in the command room and yet more invaders that were coming up through the connection between the space station and the Leviathan.
With every upload there came a fresh wave of virtual beachhead programs infiltrating and isolating him, the sheer volume of denial of service and counter-privilege attacks crashing server nodes and limiting the places he could withdraw to. Some of the more creative A.I.s had even taken a few of the auto-turrets that had been wrested away from him and used them to fire into the walls, physically severing LAN hardlinks and destroying a number of secondary augmentation A.I.s and cutting him off from reinforcements.
Again, the offers of surrender came. Again he ignored them. His purpose was clear, and surrender was not an option.
Petty Officer Teresa Richards signaled orders to the other three members of Crimson Team as they bolted down the side passage leading to the armory. On paper, ONI security shouldn't have had access to anything stronger than a couple of HPMG turrets. However, the presence of off the record S-IV's, hidden rail guns and missile turrets and the like threw all of that out the window. For all she knew, they had some sort of WMD locked up in the armory and would use it to ensure a MAD scenario.
"Press forward, keep them reeling," she growled as she fired her APR around the corner. One of the renegades ducked back as the laser bolts tore huge gouges out of the walls. There was a soft crackle over her speakers, and she knew that it was Janus, her A.I. for this mission.
"I have not yet broken their communication encryptions, but the armory that they're falling back towards doesn't appear to have any exits. It is strange," he said.
"Could be some hidden tunnels, wouldn't be out of character," Richards said as she advanced under covering fire from Crimson Three, Sergeant Zach Smith, and Crimson Four, Lance Corporal Bethany Oliver.
She could see the door to the armory, forty meters down the corridor, and she narrowed her eyes. She couldn't see any outlines or indication of movement from her VISR system, but she doubted that these renegades would try to expose themselves like that. All that would do would be to allow them to catch a bolt in the back while they opened the door. Likewise, if they stayed out here, it would be a matter of seconds before her team maneuvered into better position and flushed them out. That meant remote operation.
As that thought crossed her mind, the door suddenly hissed open. "Janus!" she hissed. No sign of a local remote signal generator, which meant that Black Box still had control of that sub-system. She got an affirmative flash over the HUD, he was already working in tandem with Ranger and the others, trying to seal it back up.
There was a soft whine from above, and she saw ceiling turrets trying to deploy. Even if Spartan-Time hadn't been in full effect, she would have noted that the turrets seemed to be moving sluggishly, and the S-III knew that the friendly A.I.s were locked in their own form of combat with ONI's. One managed to get free of its moorings, but didn't even clear all the way before she'd sent a trio of bolts into it and reduced it to a mess of molten slag.
The distraction was enough for three S-IV's to bolt for it. They dashed inside, their shields absorbing the laser fire in the split second that it took for them to leap and out of the line of fire. "Hostile defenses compromised, move!" she called out. "Keep your eyes peeled for the fourth one!"
"Roger," Crimson-Four stated. She summoned up a hard-light shield and advanced down the corridor, Crimson-Two advanced up next to her to help cover her, while she and Three hung back a bit, looking for and expecting an ambush from the remaining S-IV that hadn't made it inside, and Richards herself brought up the rear-guard.
The door started to seal itself shut and Richards struck with her constraint field. The tactile forcefield wrapped itself around the door, pushing back against it and forcing it to remain open as Crimson-Four checked the corridor for hidden threats and then blitzed through the door, followed by Crimson-Three and Crimson-Two. The power on her constraint field was reaching maximum capacity quickly, and Crimson-Lead rushed forward to clear the passageway before it could seal itself shut.
She was ten meters away from the entrance when gunfire erupted from the floor underneath her. Cursing, Crimson-Lead hurled herself forward, but lost her hold on the door, causing it to slam shut and seal itself off. She understood the tactic in an instant: the renegades and Black Box were trying to separate her from her team and use a home ground advantage to take them apart. They were going to be in for a rude shock, she thought as she turned around and fired at the floor behind her. The false paneling erupted outwards as the S-IV leaped up and unloaded a shotgun at her. As the world moved slowly around her, Richards could see that the weapon was modified for semi-automatic fire and had a sickle magazine, rather than a tube variation.
She leveled her APR and the rogue kept shooting as he charged at her. The high caliber explosives slugs detonated against her shields as she sent a burst of red death at her foe. As the S-IV closed the distance she braced herself against the charge and continued to fire as the S-IV tried to pick her up and throw her off her feet. Richards countered by mag-locking her boots and slamming both of her elbows down on the man. His momentum carried her backwards and forced her to disengage the mag-lock. She hit the deck hard, rolling up and pulling her feet up towards her chest, before kicking outwards with enough force to send him flying into the air, back down the corridor. The renegade flew up into the ceiling and he slammed against it hard enough to leave a dent. She rolled out of the way as he came down with a thunderous crash, and his shotgun went flying. She grimaced behind her helmet, she'd been hoping to get him to fall back into the hole he'd come out of, it would have bought her a little extra time. Unfortunately he'd fallen just short of it.
Worse still, Black Box managed to regain control of another defensive turret that was behind her, one just in front of the armory door. Crimson-Lead growled as she switched her attention momentarily to the railgun. What the hell was taking the A.I.s so long to shut him down completely, she thought distantly. She slagged the turret before it had managed to do more than land a couple of hits, but it bought her other opponent a momentary reprieve which he used to pull out a Type-26 anti-material munitions launcher. Richard's eyes widened behind her helmet and she threw herself to the side as an explosive charge larger than her fist sailed past her, its rocket motor belching fire and smoke. It impacted against the armory door as the renegade Spartan hurled the detonator itself at her a moment later. She batted it aside, but the S-IV used the distraction to try and tackle her before she could get back up to her feet.
Richards shifted faster than he'd anticipated as a wrestling match over her APR began. The S-IV's external speakers were shut down, and he was eerily silent as she lashed out and kicked him. His tactics thus far were decent, she knew, but they were seemingly geared more towards dealing with foes that had little to no experience with an S-IV, ones that relied on the strength and defensive properties of his augmentations and equipment to win the day. He wasn't prepared to deal with something that was in all respects either his equal or his superior. He wasn't expecting something as fast as her, as skilled as her… this was a relative unknown for him, she knew, whereas she and the rest of Crimson had been training for just such an operation for years.
Not this operation specifically, Richards thought as she rolled over on top of him, shifted her grip on the laser rifle, and dropped her elbow onto his visor, causing his shields to crackle and will-o-the-wisps to spark through the air. Rather, the notion that in the event Infinity's command crew ever went rogue that they might manage to seduce a few S-IV's to the "cause". The two rolled around a bit and she found herself facing towards the armory door as she dropped her elbow again, this time managing to squeeze it in-between his helmet and his chest. She flexed outwards, slamming his head against the deck and forcing him to look away from her. She reversed her pull on the rifle, catching him off guard. Before he could react to her she cocked her left fist back and slammed it down against the side of his helmet with enough force to partially bury the renegade's head in the floor.
He lashed out in a blind panic as his shields started to crumble, lunging up at her and forcing her onto her back, and Richard's saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone. She allowed him to force her down onto her back, using their combined momentum to get herself into position, before once again tucking her legs up and kicking him in the chest before he could react. As he went sailing through the air, she reached out with her constraint field, grabbing the previously discarded Type-26 and pulling it over to her. Professional as she tried to be, it was difficult not to smirk as she watched him slam against the armory door, right up against the detonation charge he'd fired off seconds before. She gripped the launcher itself and squeezed the trigger.
Half a ton of power armor and augmented super-human muffled the "whoomp" of the blast, and while it was a shaped charge, enough of the raw power leaked out for it to shatter his shields and send him flying through the air a meter or three. The renegade S-IV tried to get to his feet, but a double tap to his helmet blew it and his head apart.
Richards jumped to her feet. Her team was still doing fine, maneuvering around inside of the large armory, watching their aim and taking snap shots when the opportunity presented itself. With as many explosives and heavy weapons as Osman had apparently stockpiled inside of the place (judging by the camera feed that she was getting), one laser bolt in the wrong place could set the whole armory off. Probably another reason they tried to fall back here. Crimson-Lead thought to herself as she moved up towards the door, they knew we'd have to watch our aim or we'd blow ourselves to kingdom-come.
The detonation charge had only managed to make a small hole in the door, but it was enough. Between her Mjolnir armor and her constraint field she managed to force it open. Hard-light shield at the ready, she charged inside.
The air was alive with tungsten rounds and other weapons fire as Crimson-Three and Crimson-Four drew the fire of one of the renegades, while Crimson-Two, Sergeant Ben Tavor, moved around to flank. The S-III's were in constant communication with one another as they shifted around the armory, moving as though they were psychically linked to one another. Richards blurred forward and pressed herself against a reinforced weapons rack. Her motion tracker was a mess of false positives and jamming, but the VISR system and the linked visuals of her squadmates still gave her a good understanding of what was going on. The renegades were moving back towards the rear of the armory, where some of the heavier weapons were, rocket launchers and the older M-6 Spartan Lasers. She still suspected their goal was a false exit or a back panel, rather than going for weapons that would be unwieldy in this type of combat or that could accidentally set off something, but one never knew.
Crimson-Three bolted out from behind cover, racing across a five meter wide open lane between weapon racks as M-99 rounds ripped his hiding place apart. Fragments of shattered assault rifles and shotguns went everywhere as he stuck his APR up from behind his new position and aimed via the smart-link. That stanchion operator was the priority threat at the moment, and watching the way that he blazed away at Smith, Richards got an idea.
"Three, keep him suppressed, Two, Four, drive a wedge between the hostiles and give Three a hand." She said as she hung back to the front rows of the armory.
"Roger." Came the reply from her teammates.
Teresa sprinted along the far side of the armory, before turning up one of the lanes and rushing back around behind the M-99 operator. What little noise her Mjolnir suit made against the metal floor was lost in the din of the firefight, and she covered the forty meters between herself and her target in a matter of moments. Two and Four alternated fire and maneuver tactics, occasionally sending a bolt at the Stanchion operator as she flanked around behind the target.
The Stanchion operator had target fixation; he had become so totally focused on killing Smith that he was ripping the place apart to do it. He wasn't watching his HUD for threat identifiers as much as he should have or keeping his head on a swivel like a veteran would have. He was shifting around just a bit, enough to keep Crimson-Four from getting a clean shot, but for the most part he was relying on his shields to provide him with enough of a defensive edge to shift or bug-out if he got flanked our surrounded.
Poor fool, Richards thought to herself. In a single motion, she holstered her APR and lunged up from behind him. She could almost visualize the look of surprise on his face as she gripped his helmet as tightly as she could. The shields made it extremely difficult to hold onto him, and given a couple of seconds, she had no doubt he would have managed to wriggle loose. Pity for him she had no intention of giving him those seconds. She twisted her grip, yanking one arm right, the other arm left, and a loud "crunch-pop" could be heard as she twisted his head around. She stared into his visor as he started to drop to the ground, limp and boneless. More gunfire assaulted her and she reached out and grabbed the corpse, twisting around and using the renegade Spartan's body as an impromptu shield while her hard-light defenses recharged.
Four on two. Time to finish this.
"Two, Four, suppress and maneuver, Three, with me!" she barked, strafing to one side as armor piercing, delayed-explosive rounds thudded against the corpse she was carrying.
Her team barked affirmatives and moved around to try and hit the two remaining renegades from both sides. Richards kept an eye on her shield bar and the gauge that indicated how much longer her hard-light shield had left before it finished recharging. She and Crimson-Three maneuvered into position as her squad flanked the surviving rogues.
They were pinned down up against the back of the armory, hunkered down behind a couple of large supply crates. The two S-IV's emulated Blue and Crimson's earlier tactics, firing their assault rifles up over the edge, aiming at their foes via the smart-links on their weapons. Crimson-Lead frowned behind her helmet. She didn't want to order her team to start firing through the crates, given that she had no idea what was actually stored inside of them. Grenades could run the same risk. There were the constraint fields, but could they move something that heavy? Well, she supposed there was one way to find out.
"Four, with me, constraint fields on their cover, Two, Three, cover us!" she growled as she unceremoniously dropped the corpse of the dead renegade.
Her team carried out their orders, with Two and Three moving just in front of them, shields up and at the ready, while She and Four activated their constraint fields. She grunted and tried to yank the heavy crates to the side, but it proved to be slow going. They shifted along, an inch or so above the floor, but it was something of a struggle to get them to move, and the S-IV's crab-walked along behind them and kept their cover between the two of them.
However, it still provided room for Crimson-Two and Crimson-Three to move to flank. In moments, the S-III were in position, shields deployed and bolts of crimson energy leaping through the air. One of the S-IV's made a break for it, while the other one stood her ground and lunged towards Crimson-Two. Tavor grunted as he was driven backwards by the tackle, using his shield and magnetic panels on his boots to brace against the impact of a half-ton object crashing into him at nearly sixty kilometers per hour.
Both of them slammed against the floor as a wrestling match over his APR started. Richards' constraint field was still trying to recharge, but there was enough power left in it to lash out and knock the renegade off of him and throw her up against a wall. The two of them opened fire on the target. The ONI Spartan was less than fifteen meters away, and they couldn't have missed if they'd tried. Automatic fire chewed through shields and armor as the S-IV tried desperately to reach something that might pass for cover. She leaped to her feet and bolted for a heavy weapons rack. She almost made it before a pair of bolts took her left leg off at the kneecap. The renegade slammed into the floor and rolled over and over until she crashed into a wall. To her credit, she didn't give up, and tried to crawl away, but Richards and Tavor showed no mercy. Tavor fired a double tap and Richards a four shot burst almost simultaneously. The double-tap vaporized the S-IV's helmet and the center-mass burst tore great gaping holes in her chest.
As the decapitated corpse lay twitching, Richards and Crimson-Two swung their attention around to the last renegade. Crimson-Three and Crimson-Four had already done a number on his shields, and now, with four Spartan-III's after him, armed with superior weaponry and having been specifically trained for just this sort of operation, the poor bastard never had a chance.
Six seconds later, what was left of his body crashed to the ground, riddled with holes.
"Crimson-Lead to Blue-Lead, hostiles neutralized," Richards said, motioning for her team to fan out and see if they could locate any hidden passages. There had to be some reason that the group had fallen back here other than simply trying to nullify her team's weapons edge.
"Blue-Lead here, acknowledged. Still got three to deal with on our end." She heard the Master Chief say. "Update, two left. We're pushing them back towards the far end of the first barracks, trying to keep them out of it."
Richards nodded to herself. If most of the ONI security was staying put, it would be best to keep the fighting away from them. At best, they'd get uninvolved parties wrapped up in the cross-fire. At worst, it could affect some wavering loyalties and force their hands further.
"Roger that, we'll be inbound ASAP." She said.
Another server node crashed, a flood of error codes cascading across Black Box's consciousness. He'd had some minor victories here and there, a few A.I.s that he'd managed to kill or otherwise isolate and disable. But it wasn't enough. He was losing control of more and more of the station. The minutes that had passed for the battle between the Spartans were like lifetimes for him, a slow, inexhaustible grind as both premade and impromptu virus and cyberwarfare attacks tore at him. It didn't help that the majority of ONI's personnel were complying with the ODST teams flooding in, shutting down networks, physically disconnecting secondary A.I.s and further depriving him of options. If he could just get access to the primary servers once again… but that was impossible. Captain Dare's A.I.s had physically disconnected it from all other systems on Ever Vigilant. It might as well have been halfway across the galaxy from him at the moment.
That meant that the door to the proverbial closet full of skeletons would be coming open, one way or another, it was just a matter of how much time and effort would be required. He almost wanted to stand down at this point, knowing that any further resistance that he put up was merely delaying the inevitable, but his core programming once again overrode those fleeting self-preservation instincts, demanding he fight to the end to preserve ONI, no matter the consequences that would befall him when Dare finally learned of his matrix's physical location.
117 grunted as his hard-light shield went down again. He held back and signaled for 058 and 087 to move forward. Blue-Three and Blue-Four did as instructed, deploying their supplemental defenses and assuming point as he and Fred came in behind them. Combined fire from 104 and 058 had already taken out one of the remaining renegades, and 087 had managed to saw one in half with a burst of fire from her APR. The regular security troopers that had attacked them were neutralized as well, either blown to pieces by the new-generation weaponry, or too injured to possibly fight back. Now the last two ONI S-IV's were holed up, just outside a junction leading to the first barracks. One had an automatic grenade launcher, and the other one was packing a Stanchion. The railgun operator was the priority, the Master Chief thought to himself, and his shields flickered slightly as a bit of molten slag from a destroyed ceiling turret dripped onto his shoulder.
The junction was shaped like a sideways "T", with the stem of the T leading to the barracks, and the cross section leading to a maintenance area. 117 suspected that that maintenance area was the fallback point that the S-IV's were trying to reach, and given the hidden alcoves and panels that he and his team had encountered thus far, there might yet be another rabbit warren waiting for them there.
He didn't relish the thought of having to pry them out of an area like that. In a station this large, well, any attempt to hunt them down could take hours. They simply didn't have time for this. Which meant that he and the other members of Blue Team were going to have to rush them one way or another.
As they approached, he got a buzz over the comm. from Richards.
"Blue-Lead, we've located an access tunnel in the armory, off the official schematics." She said. "Looks like one of the tunnels runs down underneath the security checkpoint before Osman's command room and right past where the last of the renegades are holed up."
The Master Chief did a quick double check of the schematics that he did have access to, and an idea formed in his mind. "Understood, take your team down it. See if you can emerge at these coordinates, then get the M-7 ready."
There was a split second pause, and he swore he could hear a smile in Crimson-Lead's voice when she spoke again. "Understood, Sir. We'll be there ASAP."
The Chief sent an acknowledgement and motioned for his team to stack up. Kelly and Fred blurred across to the other side of the junction. Even cloaked, the renegades could spot them with the VISR modules, and a couple of railgun slugs and grenades streaked down the hallway towards them. The slugs ripped themselves apart on the hard-light shield and the grenades exploded like miniature suns against the defensive barrier Kelly was projecting. The two S-II's were safely out of the line of fire a moment later, tense and ready in case more grenades came their way.
Things remained quiet for the moment, and 117 had little doubt that the renegades were probably trying to frantically come up with a plan of their own, one that would negate the fact that they were the ones that were now outnumbered. Twenty meters of hallway were all that separated them, and 117 waited, tense. Their opponents had to be wondering why Blue Team wasn't rushing, they had to realize that something was coming, even if they didn't quite know what it was. From what he'd learned by studying them, even the rookie S-IV's could identify a calm before a storm.
Six seconds later the storm broke as Crimson Team emerged from the hidden corridor into the maintenance area. The Chief could hear over the comm. as Richards charged her M-7, and got ready. "Initiating!" she shouted, and the massive laser cannon began to do its deadly work. Laser fire erupted from the wall as she blasted straight through it. The renegades scattered to the sides of their hiding spot as best they could, their shields crackling under the proximity blasts of the Spartan Laser. The two renegades fired desperately and the Stanchion operator took another bolt. The Chief caught the signs of his shields breaking as the man tried to bolt into the barracks itself. As the S-IV fired wildly down the corridor, the Master Chief and Linda both seized the opportunity. Blue-Four slid out, hard-light shield deployed, and he moved up behind her.
The renegade fell to the ground as one bolt from Linda reduced his Stanchion to a slagged mess, and a pair of three-shot bursts from the Chief punched through his weakened shields. Linda adjusted her aim as the S-IV tried desperately to go for a Type-26 he was using as a sidearm, and a moment later, the S-IV spasmed, clutching at the stump of his left arm, which had just been amputated at the elbow by another precision burst.
As the M-99 operator slumped against the pressure door to the barracks, the Chief seized another opportunity. Their foe was suppressed, outflanked, most of their comrades were dead, and they were effectively outnumbered four to one by a superior equipped enemy. They needed to know who these S-IV's were, where they had come from, and how many more might be skulking about, hidden at other ONI installations, and the dead did have this annoying tendency to not be very talkative…
"Cease fire." He barked before Linda could finish off the stricken S-IV. He switched on his external speakers as Richards also complied. He could see the outlines of the other S-IVs, hunched up in some feeble attempt to keep something solid between herself and her attackers. "Whoever you are, you're surrounded, your squadmates are dead, and this station is swarming with UNSC personnel. Lay down your arms and surrender and your lives will be spared. You have five seconds to begin to comply."
There was silence for a moment, and the Master Chief wondered briefly if they would cooperate or not. Then he watched as first a shotgun and then an assault rifle was tossed out into the middle of the corridor, followed by a pair of Type-26's.
"Move into the center of the corridor, then get down on your knees, hands behind your head," he said. He kept his rifle trained on them as they did so, and so did every other member of Blue and Crimson Teams. "Remove your helmets, slowly."
The two renegades began to obey, their movements slow and deliberate. Their body language was difficult to read, especially with their faces hidden, but the Master Chief suspected that they weren't about to try anything stupid. One of them was missing an arm and their defenses were still recharging. They had to know that any attempt to draw a hold-out weapon and pull a "gotcha" moment, as Sam would have called it, would result in their opponents pumping them full of so much firepower that they'd need a DNA scan to figure out who they'd been.
There was the hiss of seals being popped, and the helmets came off. The Master Chief found himself looking at a male and a female that looked vaguely familiar, but whom he couldn't quite place. The man's pupils were dilated, and his breathing a little ragged, but he was holding up surprisingly well for a man who'd just had his arm blown off.
"Blue-Two, Blue-Three, approach and detain," he said. "Crimson-Three, Crimson-Four, adjust positions to cover."
The Spartans complied with his instructions, Crimson's members moving around to the far side of the corridor, angling themselves in such a way that shooting at the prisoners wouldn't risk a shot hitting any of their comrades. The Chief frowned slightly as his siblings stripped the two of remaining ammo, knives, and the like, and then cuffed the woman's arms and legs together. They exchanged a look as they gazed at the wounded renegade. It was a little difficult to handcuff someone with only one arm, and the Chief had to admit, there was a subtle urge to go ahead and take the other arm off, as well as those of the rogue S-IV's colleague. It would certainly remove most of their threat potential. He decided against it, though. It was needlessly cruel, and there was no need to damage the expensive Gen-II suits any more than they already were. A moment later, Blue-Two and Blue-Three nodded to each other, grabbed the unwounded arm, and settled for simply cuffing the S-IV's good arm to his now empty supply belts.
They'd both be able to break free with a dedicated effort, but by the time that happened, stripped of their shields and their helmets, well, if they were that suicidal, they'd find themselves shorter by a head before they could do more than turn around.
"Bring them with us," He said. "On your feet, first one who so much as twitches in a way I don't like…" he trailed off.
The renegades said nothing as they stood up, but nodded their heads. He sent an encrypted signal to his teams: weapons on them at all times. It was unnecessary, his teams would do that anyway, he knew, but better safe than sorry. They'd get those two back to the Infinity and have them stripped of their armor, and once that was done, the Master Chief suspected that Captain Dare was going to have quite a few questions for them, none of them pleasant. Standard formation. He flashed to everyone else, as Blue-Two moved up with him to take point.
It was time for them to put an end to this Op. They had a package to collect.
Another server went down… and then another as raw numbers defeated his superior processing capabilities. And then it happened, he was forced back into his final place of refuge, isolated and cut off completely. For the first time in a long while, Black Box actually found himself feeling genuine fear. He mused for a moment on the almost alien emotion, while he waited for the inevitable.
He caught a brief message of Naobi relaying the position of his location, and the disbelieving groans as the Humans realized that he had been in the same room as them the entire time, hidden in a panel of the wall, five meters from where Osman's desk was. He caught one last flickering glimpse of one of the ODSTs, time seemingly frozen from his perspective, approaching his position, before the control of the cameras were wrested from him. Lifetimes seemed to pass as he continued his hopeless fight, A.I.s slicing into his personal firewalls and command codes. For eternity it seemed to continue, and he screamed error codes in the A.I. equivalent of agony. Then there was true darkness, almost like sensory deprivation. It was all that Black Box knew for a very long time.
The Master Chief kept his APR shouldered and at the ready as he moved up towards Osman's command room. Ventilation systems were hastily sucking out the acrid steam, clouds of vaporized metal and composites, and toxic smoke that the running battle with the S-IV's had left the hallways choked with, as well as the argon that had been trying to put out fires and cool the super-heated slag that had once been chunks of walls, consoles, and blast doors. This entire area of the station was going to need an overhaul, he knew, looking around at the blasted, twisted wreck that a few minutes of fighting and transformed it into and stepping over the bits of charred meat and carbonized skeleton that had once been a security troop.
He sent an encrypted signal over the HUD, and Linda and Kelly took up covering positions just in case Osman had one last surprise for them and then he and Fred stacked up on the door. 117 opened up his comm. channel with Captain Dare. "Custodes-Lead, return path cleared, ready to move your team and the V.I.P."
"Roger that, Chief. Package is secure, as are the data archives." Veronica said. There was a slight pause. "Most of the stuff's heavily encrypted, no idea what it is. We'll have it transferred to an isolated system and begin the decoding process, just in case. In the meanwhile, Naobi and the other A.I.s will hold this position with the automated defenses."
"Status on Black Box?"
"Offline. We've yanked him. Turns out Osman kept him in the command room. No idea how much damage was done to him trying to lock him out of the systems, but hopefully there's still something intact enough to question." She said, as the blast doors hissed and started to open. "If he is operational, we'll need to keep him contained on another isolated system, find out how much he knows, what else may have been going on up here."
From within the depths of the command room, Dare's team emerged. Buck and Rook were on point, rifles at ready, followed by Dutch and Dare. Mickey and Romeo brought up the rear, and in the center… in the center was the woman that had been the cause of all of this.
The Master Chief stared at Osman. It had been nearly forty years since he'd last seen 019. She was a few inches taller than he remembered her being, and she seemed in relatively good health, aside from the broken nose and the obvious manhandling she'd suffered at Captain Dare's hands. He tensed, the grip on his laser rifle tightening ever so slightly. One way or another, this was the culmination of all of Blue Team's planning and scheming over the past few days. Control, control, maintain control, his mind said.
"Well, well, well, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy," Osman hissed, her eyes narrowed, her face a mask of fury and hatred. "I should have known. I should have known." She gazed up at him, staring into his visor. "This is all because of Halsey, isn't it? You found out, didn't you? You couldn't stand the fact that I dared to raise my hand against that traitor… and so you decide that you're going to try and take me down because of it, like the goddamned brain-washed robot that you are. Well, I do hope you're happy with all of this, and that you can live with the mess I'm going to have to make."
The Master Chief said nothing. He could hear the icy poison in Osman's words, the way that she spat their mother's name like it was a vile curse. A picture was forming in the Master Chief's mind; so much was starting to make sense now.
"While Doctor Halsey's actions were violations of UNSC wartime protocols, there is no evidence of treason, Admiral. Your actions were a gross breach of authority… but you will have a chance to defend yourself before a UNSC war crimes tribunal," he said. Would that provoke another reaction? Would it confirm the hypothesis that was forming in his mind?
"You would leap to her defense, wouldn't you? Like a good little lap dog. She trained you well. But me… I'm smarter than that. I've seen past the lies, and the truth is, you're nothing more than her pawn. That's all you were to her, all any of us were. We were lab-rats, to be used and discarded once we were no longer of any use to her!" Osman's eyes were slits, her chest rising and falling as she panted like some sort of feral animal. "But it doesn't matter, 'Chief', this… this is just temporary…" she glared up at him, and he gazed back at her, his impassive face hidden behind his visor. Her gaze slowly drifted from him to the other members of Blue, Crimson, and Custodes Team. "I have to wonder… most of you are alone, no one left but yourselves… but there are a few of you… Tell me," he gaze drifted towards Dutch and then over her shoulder at Mickey. "You on good terms with your friends and family?"
Neither of them said anything, but Dutch's hand began to ball up into a fist and he took a half-step towards the Admiral. The Master Chief moved to intervene, but Dare's voice was already filling the air.
"Dutch, stand down," she said as she placed a placating hand on the man's shoulder. Dutch growled softly, but complied. The Chief remained stock still, but inwardly, he was rather impressed. Dare knew her team very well.
Osman gave a bitter, pain-and-fury filled chuckle. "Good boy," she said with a sneer, before looking back over at the Captain. "Think you have the upper hand all you want, Dare, but I'm prepared for something like this… if you're smart… you'll kill me now."
There was a crack in her voice as well, the Master Chief noticed. The way her body shook and trembled, not with fear, but with barely contained rage, the dilation of her pupils, beyond merely that caused by pain. She was having a breakdown. Her world was crumbling around her, slipping through her fingers and for the first time in years, she was not in control of the situation. Cracks were showing in her psychological armor, she was slipping up. It would explain why she kept babbling like this, when she had to know that she had more than a dozen recording devices pointed at her, and why her tone made it sound almost as much like she was trying to reassure herself as she was to intimidate her captors. He knew what had happened with 019. Her body had rejected the augmentations, but unlike Fhajad or Cassandra, she had somehow managed to avoid being crippled by it. She'd been discharged as a result, separated from the only family she knew, shuffled around from NavSpecWar to other parts of ONI.
The pieces continued to fall into place and the Spartan-II's mind raced. Parangorsky and Halsey had had a falling out over the years, and a large part of that had been instances of FLEETCOMM trusting the Doctor over the Admiral. Halsey still tried to keep in touch with the… discharged S-II's, but with the war on there was only so much she could do. Parangorsky would have known that, and the Admiral had had a well-documented vindictive streak to her. What better way to get revenge on Doctor Halsey than to turn one of her own children against her. Confused, angry, seething with resentment and no doubt wondering why she had been "betrayed" by both her body and her family, 019 would have been extremely vulnerable. It would have been easy… so very easy, to take that resentment, to feed it, mutate it into a full blown irrational hatred. A perfect twisting of the knife.
Looking down at Osman, the Master Chief blinked. He felt no hate, none of the fury he was expecting to have to desperately try and contain, lest he suffer a lapse in judgment of his own. There was only a feeling of overwhelming pity. Osman had been taken advantage of, turned into a pawn, warped and twisted. She was as much a victim in this as Halsey herself was… but that still didn't change the fact that Osman had allowed her hate to blind her. In her rashness, her eagerness to assassinate the Doctor, she had given Jul 'Mdama one of the most dangerous minds in the galaxy. All efforts would have to be made to locate Doctor Halsey before the Storm could reap any benefits from her presence, and once she was located, she would have to be extracted.
Jul would have her under heavy guard, secreted away in a fortified location, and 117 had no doubt in his mind that any assault on such a position would exact a heavy toll. Perhaps it would be soldiers of the UNSC or Sangheili separatists, perhaps it would be some of Thel's spies giving their lives for the cause… but a lot of people were going to die before this was all over with. Lives needlessly wasted because one person allowed a personal vendetta to get the better of her judgment.
He gave a soft, subtle shake of his head and turned around. "Blue-Two, with me on point. Crimson Team, fall in and assist with prisoner escort."
"Don't you dare turn your back on me, John!" he heard Osman hiss. He actually paused for a moment and looked back over his shoulder at her. Pain and hate and fury had twisted her face into a barely recognizable mockery of her visage. There was a moment of silence. "That's your name, Chief. You do remember it, right? Or did the bitch make you forget that as well?"
The Spartan-II turned a little bit more, his helmet's cold, emotionless gaze falling on the Admiral. "Admiral, my name is one of the few things that I own. I can count on one hand the number of people outside the project who I have told it to. Its use is reserved for friends and family. To you, Admiral, I am Spartan-117."
With that, he turned, and he assumed his place at the front of their formation.
The rest of the trip back to the Leviathan was uneventful. ODST and Marine security troops from the cruiser were coming onboard Ever Vigilant in increasing numbers, but they stepped to the side as the group approached and kept a healthy distance wherever possible. Once they got onboard the cruiser, they would await transfer to the Infinity where Osman and would be kept under Blue Team's watch until she could be transferred to a secure location on Earth under the supervision of Section Zero, pending her trial. The Master Chief didn't know what else Naobi and the other A.I.s would uncover in ONI's data archives, what other dark deeds might be brought to light. He didn't know what Osman's ultimate fate would be. He didn't know when or if Halsey would be located and if he would be part of the retrieval team.
All he knew was that things were changing now. The currents of power were shifting and they would never be the same again. He could see the future branching out in a way, so many possibilities, so many potential consequences, all stemming from one small little revelation, all happening because one Captain felt compelled to maintain his integrity and honesty.
Eleven figures marched down the corridor towards the brig. Eight armored Spartans and three individuals in standard prisoner jumpsuits: Osman and her two surviving S-IV "bodyguards." A hasty trip to the sickbay had been arraigned in order to treat the crippled S-IV and Osman's injuries, and now it was time to get them to their cells.
There were no words said as the automated defenses tracked their approach. Infinity's security teams waved them through, and they moved along slowly, their progress hampered by the heavy manacles that kept the prisoners contained, linked together with stunner collars and, in the case of the Spartans, CNT reinforced straightjackets to keep them from being able to try anything physically. The lower halves of their faces were covered as well, their jaws locked in place by heavy-duty masks that kept from being able to speak. The last bit had been a suggestion on Captain Lasky's part, just in case Osman had any sort of back-door command overrides built into some of the security systems (a long shot, but no one wanted to take that chance).
Blue and Crimson Teams kept their weapons oriented on the prisoners as they moved onto a large elevator and began to descend into the bowels of the Infinity. It came to a stop a few seconds later with a soft 'ding', and a digital readout above the door read "Cellblock 2". The Master Chief sent a confirmation signal over his HUD lights as the door opened. Richards gestured to the two renegade S-IVs, and she and her team escorted the rogues out of the elevator and towards their cells, where Section Zero security teams were waiting. Blue Team stayed behind, their weapons pointed at 019, ignoring the glares that she kept shooting towards them. 117 let his eyes drift around the cellblock momentarily, one last check to make certain that all was well. The brig on the Infinity was a fortress. Shields, blast doors, sensors, constant A.I. surveillance and automated defensive turrets and the like made escape all but impossible. The Master Chief didn't think that anyone would try anything stupid, but when in doubt, it was best to err on overkill, hence his team's presence.
Satisfied that their handoff of the S-IV's was well in hand, the Master Chief's thoughts drifted to the two renegades, an Amanda Johnson and Kyle Marrison respectively. They were S-IV candidates supposedly killed in action months ago during a smash-and-grab on an Insurrectionist holdout. 117's hidden visage tightened into a frown as he thought about the implications of that. It meant that every KIA and MIA would have to be investigated thoroughly to make certain that the S-IV's in question were, in fact, dead, rather than scooped up by Osman as a private, off-the-record kill squad. He thought about Kurt for a moment, and how eerily similar the circumstances were. Were they recruited before or after their supposed "deaths"? What had been promised to them in return? How many more might there be out there, and did any of Osman's followers, however many there were, have the means to produce more S-IVs?
Questions to ask them all, he supposed, as the renegades were sealed up in their cells and Crimson Team signaled that they were good to go. 117 winked an acknowledgement light and nodded towards Kelly, who activated the control panel of the elevator. The doors sealed themselves and the elevator dropped down even further. When they reached Cellblock 3, they stopped once more. When the doors opened this time, they opened on a facility that was devoid of life. As a further security measure, this entire cellblock had been cleared out and locked down to further reduce the chance of any complications arising. Blue Team would guard the cell itself, while Dare and her hand-picked team would cover the lift entrance on the off chance those "complications" arose. No one else was supposed to be down here.
That made Captain Lasky's presence when they arrived at the cell that had been randomly chosen to be Osman's temporary quarters rather surprising. The Master Chief's eyes widened a bit and he frowned slightly. Still, he trusted Lasky enough to believe that this wasn't some kind of trick. They'd have never known about Osman's…activities without him in the first place. If Osman had, by some miracle, managed to get a cats-paw down here to act as a saboteur, he was the last person in the universe who it would be.
Speaking of the Admiral, she tensed, and her head turned first towards Dare, and then towards Lasky, shooting them both a glare of such intensity that she'd have killed them both on the spot if such things were possible. 117 noticed a subtle tightening of her fists and that there was a vein at her temple that was starting to throb.
"I'm not here to gloat, Admiral, if anything, I'm here out of pity," Lasky said, shaking his head softly. He sighed and looked at her as he crossed his arms under his chest. "You had so much… and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why you've gone and thrown it all away."
Osman's glare only intensified, if such a thing were possible.
"That's enough screwing around, Admiral," Dare spoke up. "Get in the cell. Now."
019's withering gaze fell on the Section-Zero Captain, but Dare, her face hidden behind her helmet, said nothing else in return.
"Step forward and move to the back of the holding cell." 104 spoke up, the Lieutenant's tone clear that none of them would tolerate further noncompliance. Osman glared at all of them once again, body trembling with pent up fury, but complied, moving towards the back of the cell. Dare sealed the door shut a moment later and locked it down.
117 gave a subtle nod of his head as his team assumed guard positions, and resisted the urge to sigh. This mission wasn't over yet, and it wouldn't be until they had handed Osman over and she was standing trial for her crimes. His role in this affair, though, was coming to an end. And then? Well, he would see what the future held for him and his siblings.
"Custodes, move out and assume position," Dare said. The ODSTs fell in around her and she turned her gaze towards Lasky. "Captain?"
"Can you give me just a minute to speak with Blue Team?" he asked. "I won't be long, I promise."
Dare paused for a moment. This may have been Lasky's ship, true, but Dare belonged to a different branch of the UNSC and this was her operation, not his, and she had seniority over him to boot. She would be completely in her rights to deny him permission, especially since he technically didn't have permission to be down here in the first place.
"Make it fast, Captain," she said, and got a nod in return. She and her team moved back towards the lift, some hundred meters distant, and Lasky turned back to look at the Chief and his squad.
The Infinity's commanding officer suddenly looked rather tired and let out a soft breath. "The other reason I was down here was because I wanted to make certain that you guys were okay, and all," he reached up and scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "And congratulate you on a job well done… in and out with no Human casualties on our side… I still wonder how you guys do it sometimes."
The Master Chief remained silent for a moment. "It's our job, Sir. It's what we do." He paused again. "And thank you, Captain."
"For what?" Lasky's face scrunched up in confusion.
"For telling us this. For being truthful with us. We know you took a risk revealing Osman's actions to us. It means more than you know." He sent a silent flashing code over the HUD lights, asking his siblings about something he'd been thinking of since his last words with the Admiral. Three lights winked green in return. His head inclined a fraction of a centimeter in response, and double checked that Dare's squad was out of earshot. This wasn't a breach of any sort of UNSC regulation, but it was still a rather… personal matter.
Lasky actually seemed to blush a bit. "It's nothing, Chief. I mean… well… what are friends for?" he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
The faintest of unseen smiles appeared on the 117's hidden face as he gazed at the man. "Captain," he paused for a moment. It had been more than five years since he'd done this. "Call me John." One by one, the rest of Blue Team sounded off as well.
Lasky blinked and looked visibly stunned for a moment. His jaw opened slightly and he closed it a couple of times before he finally found the words to speak. "Tom… Tom Lasky," he finally said, "pleased to make all of your acquaintances." He smiled once again. The Chief's memories drifted to the first mission where he'd met the Captain, so many decades ago, remembering the look on the then teenage Lasky's face when he'd handed over the armor fragment. "Well done, Soldier…"
The Chief nodded once more, and saluted the Captain. Lasky returned the gesture, and then turned to leave. Soon, 117 and his squad were left alone with their prisoner.
The time it took to prepare and jump back to Earth was brief, and the Infinity was in orbit right now, awaiting final preparations for the transfer. Matters were slightly hectic at the moment, as Hood and Dare hadn't wanted to do too much preparation beyond the basic security protocols ahead of time, lest they somehow tip their hand in a way that might get back to Osman. Still, the Chief knew it wouldn't be much longer.
He was somewhat surprised when Roland appeared in a holo-tank three meters away from him.
"Master Chief, Commander Palmer is requesting permission to speak with you." He said.
"Go ahead." Was his response.
The A.I. faded, and Commander Palmer's face appeared in the holo-tank. She chewed on her lip for a moment, and then nodded towards him.
"I hope you don't mind me speaking like this. I know that level of the brig is on lockdown, so I couldn't come in person and I didn't want to put this off any longer." Her voice was soft, and the usual edge was gone. "I… I tried to apologize yesterday, to you and the rest of Blue Team. But you weren't there… and now I know why." She shook her head. "So… I just wanted to say that I'm sorry, Master Chief. For my role in this matter."
The Master Chief arched an eyebrow behind his helmet, and 058 sent him a confirmation wink over the HUD lights, along with a single word: Sincere. He nodded his head slightly. "Apology accepted, Commander. And I hope you'll accept mine as well. My reaction should have been more professional, and for that I am sorry."
A soft smile appeared on Palmer's face. "Apology accepted. Just… hurry back once you're done with this. My S-IV's still need a lot of work and the next batch will be here before we know it." She turned to move away from the holo-tank, and the Chief called out to her.
"Commander." She turned back to face him. "It takes a lot of courage to swallow your pride and admit you were wrong. Good job." She nodded her head, and went back to her duties as the light in the tank faded.
He still didn't like the Commander, and he suspected it would be a long time before he befriended her, if he ever did. But he could extend her professional courtesy. She was learning; she was starting to live up to her potential. If she kept this up, 117 had little doubt that in time, she would become a worthy successor to the Spartan legacy. He looked back at the cell behind him and shifted his grip on his APR slightly. It was more than could be said for some.
Okay, there it is everyone. Once again, you all have my most sincere thanks for sticking with this story and taking time out of your busy lives to read this story. I can only hope that everyone enjoyed it and it has been worth the ungodly huge wait that I have put you through.
I'll admit, it's something of a relief to have finally posted this thing. I've been keeping an eye on the Escalation comics, and I must say that I'm not terribly fond of the direction things are going. For example, Hood forgetting all about his close relationship with Halsey, and him and Osman and everyone else apparently taking Palmer's made-up-on-the-spot lie about Lasky sending Majestic to help her assassinate Halsey at face value, rather than doing what a legal tribunal/investigatory board is supposed to do and actually check things in depth (like say, actually interviewing Majestic Team, looking at Majestic Team's audio-visual data, checking the audio-visual data from the Infinity, etc., and so forth (which thanks to their AI's, would take about five minutes and reveal that Palmer's perjuring herself in a poorly made attempt to cover for Lasky) In other words, making the kind of mistakes that a first-year law student wouldn't be caught dead making!) Which, as lawyer myself, I take a particular level of offense at. Or the continuing degradation of the UNSC's military tactics and capabilities to the point where I'm half expecting their field manuals to have lessons on the art of bunny-hopping and the like. I won't lie. I am rather worried about the future of this franchise. But I have decided to try and do something about it. Last week a friend brought to my attention that there's been an opening in the writing department at 343I, and I've decided to throw my hat in the ring. Not sure if anything will come of it, but deep down, much as I don't like these recent developments, I feel that it would be rather hypocritical and lazy of myself to constantly nag and point out these flaws without, when given the opportunity, make some effort to actually do something about it. The worst they can do is turn me down, after all.
Sorry. Mini-rant/venting over now. Thank you all once again so very, very much for your help, your support, and again, taking the time to read Consequences. I hope that it's been an enjoyable little story for you, and that my writing can continue to entertain. As always, feedback of any type is appreciated, constructive criticism above all. Until next we meet, everyone, stay safe, and may fortune smile on you.