Author's Note: I'm baaaacckk...
Infinity Effect Chapter 33: Hunting Illusions Pt. II
Shepard awoke slowly, feeling strange, feeling… good. As his eyes came into focus, he looked farther down his bed only to see that his sheets had been thrown away, and Liara was sprawled out further down the bed with her head in a very… interesting place, currently doing a very interesting thing.
A couple of moments elapsed, and soon Shepard found himself staring contently up at the ceiling while Liara sipped from a glass of water on the bedside table. "Feeling better?"
He simply nodded, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.
"Three hours until our next destination," she said. Shepard briefly opened one eye to look at and acknowledge her, but closed them again as Liara got up and headed to the bathroom. After she had finished her shower and had finagled her way into her skin-tight armor undersuit, which Shepard had watched with rapt attention of course, the Commander finally summoned the strength to slide his legs out over the bed and put them on the floor.
"You get one too," the Asari reminded, pointing a slender finger over towards the bathroom and shower. "After you're done, meet us down in the War Room. We're having a meeting to discuss the research that we pulled from that Cerberus base yesterday."
Shepard stood up, giving his lover a sloppy mock salute. "As you say Commander."
Liara rolled her eyes, turning to walk towards the door and out of the cabin but not before giving Shepard a humored smirk over her shoulder.
In less than twenty minutes Shepard was strolling through the security holoscreen, acknowledging the two Ensigns manning the station with a small smile and a return salute. It was only another few steps to the doors leading into the War Room, but Shepard couldn't help but pause for a second to look at the oaken conference table to the left. The Systems Alliance had almost completely gutted the SR-2 bow to stern during her retrofits, but he was glad that they had at least kept that.
There was a crowd already gathered around the circular holotable recessed into the dim room. All who had participated in the last combat mission were present looking well-rested and alert, since this meeting would not only go over the intel they had 'liberated,' but would also serve as the briefing for the next mission soon coming up.
All heads turned to look when he entered the room except for Cortana, whose holographic avatar was busy pacing back and forth on the surface of the holotable through a sea of images, data lines, and engrams, obviously heavily engrossed in something or other.
He made his way down the short sets of stairs to join the rest around the table. "So, what do we have?" His eyes travelled around the room for answers, but eventually settled on the holotable and Cortana.
"Fortunately, we recovered a sizeable amount of data. The near complete research records from the base dating back three years," the AI started, now bringing herself away from her internal deliberations and turning to talk to Shepard directly, fading away what holographic symbols stood in their line of sight. "Unfortunately, the subject matter of the research is quite… unsavory."
Shepard pursed his lips. "I would have been surprised if it wasn't. Liara told me it deals heavily with indoctrination."
"Not just deals heavily Commander," Cortana began to clarify. "Is concerned exclusively with indoctrination. Research on the subject has been that base's sole job for the entirety of its existence. EDI, you can probably present the data better than I can, you have experience in this area."
The Normandy's shipboard AI didn't miss a beat after Cortana's hand-off. "Using pieces of salvaged tech acquired from Sovereign and the derelict Reaper that had been orbiting Mnemosyne and live test subjects, Cerberus scientists discovered the neurochemical changes that the Reaper electromagnetic fields cause within the brain that lead to indoctrination. After this discovery, scientists were split between two projects, codenamed Projects Mist and Tsunami."
"Wait, so Cerberus know how indoctrination works? How long have they know this?" Shepard asked, a bit incredulously. From what he had heard Alliance scientists hadn't even come close to making a dent in understanding the Reapers' convoluted system of brainwashing.
"Six months. However, to say that Cerberus fully understands the process of indoctrination would be incorrect. Rather, they are now aware of the fundamentals, and are attempting via trial and error to recreate what the Reaper's themselves are capable of," EDI clarified.
"How successful have they been?" Liara asked.
EDI answered, "Unfortunately, some parts of the research have been redacted, likely a security measure by Cerberus to compartmentalize operations. There are references in the data to 'a successful seventh trial,' and a worrying response to a received message about how one scientist was 'glad to hear mass production efforts had begun running smoothly.'"
"We didn't see any sign of experimentation inside the base," Previa remarked.
"That's because the physical experimental trials take place in different locations, one for each project," clarified Cortana. "All the scientists did - well, used to do - was analyze and interpret the raw data sent to them."
"Mass production.." Shepard said with no small level of concern. "Do we know where that message came from? Who sent it?"
"No," Cortana answered, shaking her head. "All traces of a return address were completely erased. Not even I can fish a set of coordinates from digital nothingness. We are in luck though, since EDI managed to pull the location of Project Mist."
"Cerberus used two programs to erase transit records, one for communications, and one for cargo manifests," EDI explained. "Luckily for us, a bug in the program dedicated to erasing the cargo manifests of each outgoing shipment left a slight digital fragment of the destination coordinates. By piecing together the fragments from dozens of shipments sent since the base was operational, I was able to determine the exact location of Project Mist. It is where we are heading now."
"Good work, both of you," said Shepard, commending the artificial intelligence and being reminded once again just how useful they were. "So, we have a mission. Investigate Project Mist further and neutralize the operations of whatever facility it is housed in. Do we know anything other than the coordinates?"
"No Commander, that is why Joker is going to bring us in on a long, slow approach so we have time to observe the facility under stealth and plan our assault," said EDI. "We still have two hours and 14 minutes until we drop out of FTL."
Shepard nodded. "Alright, well not much point in doing a briefing when there are still so many unknowns. Everyone's got the next two hours to themselves, but keep in mind I expect everyone geared and ready to go by the end of that time. We'll have our briefing once we have a better idea of what we'll be getting into. Dismissed."
"Two Cruisers? That's a lot of firepower."
"This doesn't look good Commander. Word must have gotten around about our attack on their last base. Would explain the heavy ships and all the fighters."
Shepard was with Joker in the cockpit of the Normandy, looking out the sensor data coming in that identified their new target, a Cerberus space station. It's the kind that Shepard had seen before, a sort of half shield with a hollow center, a large enough structure to provide docking births to several ships, though only the two Cruisers and their fighter complements - two wings worth - were present.
"How close could you get us?" Shepard asked their usually intrepid pilot.
"Eh. I could dance just outside of their visual range, but any closer would be risking it. Even with our Thanix cannons, I don't like our odds. Our stealth would go right out the window too as soon as we began combat burns."
Shepard pursed his lips. "What about the Kodiak?"
"Further probably, but you'd still have to get past the fighter screen. You'd have to ask Cortez for a real answer," Joker replied. He kept looking at the Cerberus base, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth a couple of times. "Even if you could get past all of these defenses and into the base, what I'm worried about is if you get detected. What's to say that those Cruisers won't just blow that station to kingdom come at the first sign of intrusion? Especially if there's sensitive data about that Project Mist inside like you think."
The Commander had to begrudgingly admit that his pilot was right. They would be hard pressed to even make it to the station, not to mention making their way through it without being detected. Shepard wished he had done more inquiry into Alliance R&D's new tactical cloak systems… wait - of course!
"I have an idea," Shepard said, noting Joker's inquisitive eyebrows.
The Master Chief had agreed to Shepard's plan almost instantly after he had finished describing it. It quickly became very clear to Chief once he learned the situation that this would probably be the only shot for a successful mission, and so here he was in the back of Viper-Heavy alone, while the gunship stealthily threaded it's way through the Cerberus space forces and closer to the station.
Active camouflage was the key here, the final piece of the puzzle that turned an infiltration mission from a hail-mary into a plausible operation. Hidden from both sensor and visual view, Viper-Heavy carefully closed the distance towards a service airlock that had been identified by the Normandy's high-power cameras.
"We're at the infiltration point Chief, and Cerberus doesn't seem to be none the wiser." The voice was that of Flight Sergeant Dolton, the pilot of the unique Pelican, and came down through the aircraft's intercom instead of their standard comms channels. Chief had insisted on radio silence as soon as the Pelican's thrusters had fired up inside the Normandy's shuttle bay.
"Roger. Ready for depressurization." The Spartan had switched to suit life-support systems just before, the green indicators in his HUD displaying seal integrity, oxygen supply, as well as internal and external pressure. There was a slight hiss as the air within the gunship's troop bay filtered out, the artificial gravity systems leaving with it. Chief felt the weightlessness of zero-g creep in, but his magboots kept him securely planted to the metal deck.
The hissing stopped. A silence fell over the enclosed bay, the absolute silence of space, where there was no atmosphere for sound waves to travel. "Depressurization complete."
"Open the door," the Spartan ordered, activating his own active camouflage systems. As he felt rather than heard the door hydraulics working he saw his body envelop itself in the light-bending energy field, becoming as close to a ghost as was possible. It was a strange feeling, and although it was one he was familiar with, there nonetheless was always that split-second sensation of vertigo as the physical reference points of one's body disappeared into seemingly thin air.
The white-painted outer hull of the Cerberus Station filled his field of view through the door. "Ready?" a voice chirped in his earpiece.
He nodded his head, a gesture which Cortana was sure to pick up on given that she was connected to his nervous system. It was just them two, as no other members of Shepard's team had the tech or training required for this kind of infiltration mission. Despite that, Chief knew that the pair had faced much more… precarious situations and gone up against much greater odds, always coming out on top.
Chief crouched, then deactivated his magboots and pushed off in the steady, deliberate manner of movement that was all but required in zero-g. He passed through the door of the troop bay and past the gunship's own active camouflage field, though any potential observer would have noticed nothing but a shift in light, perhaps a blip in the number of stars in the backdrop.
There were a hundred meters of vacuum between his exit point and the service airlock, and as the destination loomed ever closer Chief gently repositioned his body so that his feet, and more importantly his magboots, would touch down on the station hull first. As the magnets secured him to the station with a thud that he barely felt through his armor layers, Chief's eyes immediately went to the small console panel to the left of the airlock door.
"Can you get it?"
"Already am," the AI replied. The Spartan wasn't surprised, given that Cortana was literally built to be the finest electronics warfare and systems infiltration entity in the entirety of the UNSC. "Let's see… I've just been handed the station's security systems, including cameras, alarms, blueprints, troop numbers, patrol paths…"
"Right, airlocks. Those things. Forgot you humans still have a physical form you need to bring along on missions. How primitive."
Chief rolled his eyes, fully aware that the snarky AI knew that he did so. Nonetheless, the red background of the console turned a pleasant green and the outer airlock door started to slowly open. The Spartan maneuvered his way inside, warily eyeing the black orb of a security camera tucked into an upper corner.
"On a loop, don't worry," reassured Cortana. "Cerberus has no idea we nor the Normandy are around, although they are still in a high state of readiness because of how thoroughly we trashed their last base."
The outer airlock door closed behind him and air began to filter in, the next step in the process and what would keep an explosive decompression from occurring if the inner airlock door was opened before pressure was equalized.
"This door opens into a service corridor running parallel to the main hallway of this deck. The reactor is on deck twenty-one, near the bottom of the station, with the central data banks just above on the twentieth deck, and laboratories filling the first, second, and third decks."
"I'm guessing that if you could access the data banks you would have told me by now," posed Chief.
"They running on independent systems, I'd need you to physically bring me to something that is connected to them. One of the few reasons I keep you around honestly."
"Find us stairs, lifts are out of the question," Chief said, muscle memory guiding his hand to the small of his back where he withdrew an MA5K silenced carbine and settled it into his hands. He was travelling light this mission due to the simple fact that the active camouflage systems needed more energy to cover more surface area, and the more weapons and equipment he deigned to carry, the harder the camouflage systems had to work. So, since currently strapped to his back was a pack carrying enough C12 plastic explosives to blow the station's reactor to smithereens, carrying only a carbine, an M6C pistol, and a handful of magazines was necessary in order to give him enough time with his camouflage systems to complete the mission. "Reactor first. Data banks second."
"Roger. Got a waypoint for you, opening the inner door now," Cortana said.
Chief had his carbine at his shoulder and ready, even though his AI companion had given the clear. Habits formed in training were hard to break in any soldier, and near impossible for a Spartan. The airlock door slid upward efficiently, and Chief got his first glimpses down the service corridor. The narrow, poorly lit hallway could have been exchanged for that in any UNSC ship or station, so similar were the patterns of pipes, wiring, and valves decorating the floors, walls, and ceiling.
The Spartan moved steadily down the corridor, knowing that the mission would only get more difficult with each step further into the station he took. He reached the first of Cortana's series of waypoints, the access door leading into the main hallway of this deck, DECK 16, so the decals on the walls said. He very clearly saw two red dots on his motion tracker, moving slowly down the hallway just on the other side of the door.
"Two-man patrol. I'll give you the clear when they pass," said Cortana.
There were many more yellow dots, contacts that Cortana didn't immediately classify as possible threats, that his motion tracker picked up further into the station. He kept his attention on the two red dots for now though.
He waited by the count on the mission timer in his HUD for thirteen seconds, then Cortana opened the door into the hallway. Normally while operating in a hostile environment, clearing doorways was meant to be done with force and speed, so as to minimize the amount of time spent in the natural chokepoint that they created. However, speed and force were antithetical to his current mission, and the environment wasn't hostile… yet.
With the kind of deliberate grace that people don't usually expect from a metric-ton armored war machine, the Master Chief stepped out into the hallway, the active camouflage systems shimmering very briefly while they adjusted to the bright overhead lights and the white walls that they reflected off of. He scanned up and down both directions of the hallway, making sure that there was no one in sight.
"Can you see me?" he asked,
Cortana, embedded into the station's security systems, replied with, "Yes, but I'm an AI, and better than your average security desk jockey at their job in almost every single way. Limiting myself to even extraordinary human visual ability... I see nothing but an empty hallway. Not that it would matter given how I'm feeding them loops anyways."
"Pays to be safe."
"Says the man infiltrating a space station with a guard strength in the Company range, alone."
"You're here too."
A pause. "Touché."
A few more steps and the Spartan was to the door that would lead into one of the number of stairwells connecting the station's decks to one another. "Stairwell is clear for now, go for it. Your exit door is exactly seven decks down, Deck 21."
The door once again slid open in front of Chief's eyes as Cortana activated the controls, and the near-invisible Spartan crossed into the stairwell, raising his rifle up to scan the stairway leaning up, then doing to the same for the path leading down. The stairway spiraled around a large support beam, meaning Chief didn't have have much sight up or down the stairwell. Instead, he hugged the left wall of the stairwell and started descending, silenced barrel of his carbine constantly being adjusted to cut the changing angles of sight as he moved downwards.
He made his way cautiously down four decks without issue, glad that the station's lifts and elevators seemed to handle the vast majority of traffic.
"Head's up Chief, one contact just entered the stairwell two decks below and is ascending. Seems to be a scientist, not a trooper. Unarmed."
Chief, who had already been halfway down on set of stairs, starting stepping back up until he reached the flat part where the stairs changed direction. He backed into one of the corners and tucked his MA5K close to his chest with his left hand, removing his M6C from his hip since the pistol had lower profile. The yellow dot that was the scientist previously turned to red, and Chief started to hear light footsteps echoing off of the close walls. He brought his pistol close to his chest, gripping it with both hands, ready to spring it forward and take a shot at a moment's notice.
The clicks of approaching footfalls got closer, the gait telling Chief that it was a woman. She rounded the corner into view, tousled brown bun obscuring a face that was occupied with the datapad in her arms. She ascended towards Chief, the sound of her lips mouthing the words on the screen reaching the Spartan's hyper-keen hearing. Keep walking. Don't look.
The scientists stopped short of the large, flat stair in where Chief was tucked into the corner, and she looked up in his direction. She didn't know why she looked, but something just felt… off. A strange tension in the air. Her eyes, green, tired from long work days staring at screens but still alert and perceptive with intelligence, swore she saw a shimmer in the corner -
The Master Chief's M6 coughed twice, and the scientist crumpled. The Spartan reached forwards and grabbed at the body, arresting its fall by the lapel of its coat, gently and silently setting it down on the stairway. He was already moving before Cortana's warning, careful to avoid the trails of crimson blood running down the metal stairs alongside his boots.
"A body is a complication. We better speed things up."
"I know," the Chief responded, continuing down the flights. Two more decks to go. The stairway had just been too cramped and he couldn't take the risk of an alert going out. A civilian, perhaps, but one working for an enemy on terrible projects. He had been very young when he had learned that the lines of war were never solid.
"We're here. Hallway is clear," said Cortana.
Chief stepped out of into the hallway, clearing left, then right down the hallway with his carbine raised.
"Reactor entrance is all the way at the end of the hall and to the left. Two troopers posted outside the door. No abnormal activity this floor showing on the cameras."
The oscillating hum of the reactor that reverberated through both the air and floor had started before he had even stepped out onto the main deck from the stairwell, but just continued to grow more intense the closer he got as he followed Cortana's instructions. He rounded the last corner and with two trigger pulls eliminated the two troopers standing guard, the noise of the reactor muffling the sounds of their armored bodies hitting the deck.
He flashed his Promethean vision, the penetrating scan revealing five figures in the reactor room beyond the door. There were two more guards just on the other side, body language suggesting they were unawares of their fallen comrades separated by just inches of steel. Blueprints that Cortana had grabbed showed that there was a second floor of the room, where the reactor's control unit was housed. His scan picked up three engineers tending to the mostly automated equipment. Luckily for him, the large glass viewing windows that looked out into the reactor were also visible from the door, as would be the three targets behind it.
The Spartan stacked up just besides the door. Five targets. He exchanged the magazine in his Carbine for a full one, breathing calmly. He knew Cortana was waiting on his signal.
The door to the reactor chamber slid open like it would any other time. Chief's weapon was already up, elevated towards the engineers in the second floor control room. He would take his chances with the pair of soon-to-be aware Cerberus troopers in CQB, rather than risk one of the three techs getting off an alarm.
The control room glass was stronger than average, built to protect from radiation in the case of an accident. Thick though it may have been, it wasn't designed to be bulletproof. The full metal jacket rounds, rated to pierce personal armor plating, barely noticed the window panes as three two-shot bursts flew towards the unfortunate engineer's faces in half as many seconds.
The Spartan had seen the guard on the left in the process of raising his weapon, and Chief dropped to one knee, swinging his rifle towards the trooper. The sudden movement from the intruder startled the trooper into firing, the first two rounds disintegrating on the Chief's energy shields. The rest of the burst, driven upwards by recoil that was ill-controlled in the blur of the moment, suddenly found that it's intended target was now crouched underneath it, and instead buried itself in the opposite Cerberus Trooper, who stumbled to the ground flailing at his neck.
Chief depressed the trigger once more and the last target in the room fell, holes from his chest soaking the front of his armor plate red.
"Clear," said Cortana.
"Clear," Chief repeated, doing one last scan of the room. "Alarms?"
He nodded, heading towards the access airlock that led into the heart of the reactor machinery. Cortana took care of the lock, and it was a short cycle before he was finally privy to the innards of the station's power. A triangular radiation symbol parked itself in one of the corners of his HUD, but for now it was only a cautious yellow. His MJOLNIR, unless damaged, was more than capable of handling the radiation.
"Show me where."
Cortana updated his HUD with several navpoints. "Most of the charges will go towards destabilizing the mass effect core. Destroy that and the entire reactor, then the station, will very briefly turn into a miniature sun. The extras will go into the capture rod operation and storage mechanism."
Chief got to work, the adhesive charges designed to be simple to place and to arm. He was about two-thirds of the way done when Cortana chirped warningly in his ear. "There's a patrol heading down the stairwell we used. It's just a matter of time before they find that scientist. I don't have access to their helmet comlink system, so I wouldn't expect our presence here to stay a secret for much longer.
The Spartan finished tapping in the three-numeral activation code on his current charge, then stood up, looking back towards the reactor entrance. "How long?
"About ten seconds now.
"Great," Chief muttered, moving quickly to the next charge location. With a chime and a flash of green on the indicator light, this charge indicated that it was ready as well. His HUD told him that he still had five more charges to set, but with the new information from Cortana, he didn't know if he'd still have time…
Again reading his thoughts, Cortana highlighted one position out of the remaining five, the last one remaining on the mass effect core. "Forget the capture rods, just finish up the mass effect core."
Chief nodded, hurrying to the last position. He was just withdrawing the last charge from his pack when the piercing shrill of an alarm sounded, accompanied by menacing red flashing from emergency warning lights around the room. He didn't need Cortana to tell him what that meant.
"They've gotten smarter Chief," she said to him, "They've taken the core electronics systems offline, I'm out. They must know that there's an AI working against them."
The alarms overpowered the sound of the confirmation chime, but the light flashed green on the last charge anyway. Chief spun around back towards the entrance to the reactor, flashing his Promethean vision once again. About twenty meters down the hallway at the end of the scan's range, he saw Cerberus Trooper outlines rushing towards the sealed reactor doorway, at least two squads of them. He had no doubt that more would be coming, there was an entire Company of security forces stationed here.
"Give me options Cortana," he said, reaching into his pack for one last charge.
"I've got it!" she said not missing a beat, the advantage of her immense processing power. "Access ladder up in the control room that leads into the engineering station on the twentieth deck. It's right across the hall from the central data banks."
"Convenient," Chief mused dryly, hurling the now activated charge at the reactor door, the adhesive sticking it to the surface. "You know what to do with that."
It was Cortana who was in control of all the charges, and she did indeed know what to do. Meanwhile, Chief rushed up the stairs leading towards the reactor control room on the second floor, armored boot delivering a massive kick that bowed the door at the top in. He shouldered his way into the room, ignoring the bodies of the three technicians splayed about and not caring about the rivulets of blood that he stepped through.
A navpoint guided him to the access ladder in the back corner of the room, and despite obviously not being designed for a person of such… stature as an armored Spartan, there was still barely enough room for Chief to start shimming up the rungs, the back of his pack occasionally scraping along the opposite wall as he did so. About halfway up a roar of noise and flash of brightness indicated the delaying charge had been detonated by Cortana, no doubt badly hindering the Cerberus troopers trying to get into the reactor.
Chief's motion sensor was now a venerable sea of angry red dots, no doubt Cerberus was now swarming what forces they had to try and find the incursion. They needed to wrap this up and exfiltrate, fast. He exited the ladder in another engineering control room, smaller and thankfully unoccupied. He quickly found the door, the station blueprints that Cortana had pulled up for him in his visor telling him that just beyond was the central hallway for the twentieth deck, with the central databanks just a tantalizing few meters down and across the hall.
A flash of his Promethean vision revealed the complications: nearly an entire platoon of Cerberus soldiers guarding the hallway and the entrance to the data banks. Chief pursed his lips, sighing slightly through his nose. "How fast can you secure that data once I get you to it?"
"Depends how much of it there is. I'm the fastest AI ever created though, remember that."
"I remember," Chief said, switching out the magazine in his Carbine for a fresh one.
"What's your strategy for getting in there? That's a lot of Cerberus between here and there," she asked.
"No strategy." Chief said, tucking his Carbine into his right shoulder and grabbing his M6C with his left hand. "Just brute force."
A series of rapid blinks and his active camouflage deactivated for the first time this mission, another series amplifying his Mjolnir's energy shielding to their maximum level. He would take the decreased efficiency of other secondary systems for the extra protection, he would be needing it very shortly.
He raised both of his weapons. "Open the door."
It slid open at Cortana's behest, and the Spartan sprang forwards into action like a tiger. He immediately had his pick of targets, but chose to start with the ones closest to him posing the most imminent potential threat. UNSC munitions started burying themselves into Cerberus heads, visors, necks, and chest plates at an alarmingly accurate rate, yet killing Cerberus Troopers wasn't his primary concern.
Luckily for him, the door to the data banks was literally directly across the central hallway, which itself was about fifteen meters wide. Now, the amount of force that a regular armored soldier could generate in a span of fifteen meters wasn't that much. However, the Master Chief was far from a regular soldier, Mjolnir not included.
With each step forwards, muscles hardened by decades of intense exercise and combat released coiled energy, enhanced greatly by the powered servos and the ultra-responsive crystalline gel layers. The Spartan's weapons kicked against his hands in their deadly dance, but the Chief only had one real target - the center mass of the door that was rapidly approaching.
As the first Cerberus troopers started to respond to the newfound threat, hastily fired bullets hissing through the air around Chief and striking his energy shielding, Chief halted firing and lowered his shoulder.
As it turned out, though the door was well-built, it was not built well enough to withstand the impact of a 1250 pound suit of power armor sprinting at near-full speed. The door collapsed inwards at the center seam as Chief bowled through it, the impact causing him to momentarily lose his footing. Keeping his forward momentum, he dove forwards into the data banks in a roll.
"Cortana!" he barked, coming out of his roll with his center mass turned back towards the entryway he had just forced himself into, quickly returning his magnum to a magplate on his hip and exchanging the spent magazine in his Carbine with a fresh one.
"I'm in!" she exclaimed, jumping from Chief's suit to one of dozens of server towers that dominated most of the room.
A Trooper stuck his head into the gap in the doorway that Chief had created, then quickly lost it as the Spartan put a three-round burst through his visor. He put some suppressive fire through the doorway and took a quick look around the room. Server towers mostly, with paths cleared between them. However, what immediately caught his eye was the fact that embedded into the back were were several large windows that looked out into the vacuum beyond. Large enough for a Spartan…
Another Trooper chanced revealing himself, suffering the same fate as his prior comrade. Chief knew that it would only be a matter of time before they tried a more effective strategy, thinking of the Troopers with ballistic shields or the more heavily armored and shielded Centurions. Without his ACS and the rifle's substantial power, those enemies would be more difficult to deal with.
He kept firing suppressive bursts into the opening, backing further into the room. He had the next magazine, his last one, ready to slam into the receiver the instant that his newly spent one was ejected. Switching to a one-handed grip on the rifle, he flung his pack off of his shoulders and reached into it with his free hand, finding one of the remaining charges. He started to arm it, still firing into the doorway, and exclaimed, "Cortana!"
"I'm done! What's our exfil?" she answered back quickly.
Chief turned and flung the pack at the nearest window at the back wall, at the same time noticing the shimmering in the air as six beings materialized out of thin air, arranged in a rough circle around him. Phantoms.
Internally, he kicked himself for failing to spot them, one flash of his Promethean vision would have revealed them, but externally, he allowed himself a small smirk. His pack struck the window just as the first Phantom leapt towards him, blade extended.
He didn't need to vocalize the command. In the short second that the pack was in the air Cortana had figured out what Chief wanted to do. So, after boosting Chief's shield strength in the direction of the window, she sent the command signal to detonate the charge that the Spartan had just armed.
For a brief instance the room was nothing but noise, heat, and bright light, but soon that was replaced by a rushing wind as the atmosphere in the room escaped at best possible speed through the new hole in its exterior into the vacuum of space beyond.
Chief had crouched low and activated his magboots in preparation, but the six Phantoms were thrown off of their feet by the sudden change in pressure and the gushing of atmosphere outwards, starting to get sucked towards the open gash in the exterior wall. The Spartan waited just another second - then deactivated his magboots and followed them. He tucked himself into a ball, allowing the currents of air to wash over and control him, then suddenly there was silence.
He was in the void now, his momentum carrying him steadily away from the Cerberus space station. He quickly slipped back into active camouflage, since even his advanced shielding wouldn't fare well against fighter or warship weaponry if they were to detect him. He fought down the nausea that came with free-floating in space while not being able to see any part of his body for reference point, but training, willpower, and Cortana's helpful wire-overlay of his limbs in his HUD quickly got rid of it.
"Find Viper-Heavy," Chief told Cortana, "Have them maneuver for pick up."
It was another few long, silent minutes until the Master Chief was safely back within Viper-Heavy's troop bay. Grateful to be back under the pull of gravity and atmosphere, the fact that it was artificial be damned, Chief made his way up to the cockpit.
"Flight Sergeant, sitrep," he said towards their pilot Samuel Dolton.
The pilot turned his head for a second to look at the Spartan, then went back to his instruments. "We're looking good so far Master Chief. One of their Cruisers jumped out of system a few minutes ago, but the other has been sending troop carriers to the station and has taken up an overwatch position while its fighters comb the surrounding area. Thankfully we made it past their search radius without issue, and we'll be cruising quietly for another few minutes until we make our final approach back to the Normandy."
Chief nodded. "Good work, notify me if anything changes."
He turned back for the troop bay, settling into one of the seats heavily. Cortana had been rather silent, no doubt taking time to decrypt and categorize the data she had lifted from the central data banks. "Cortana, are we at minimum safe distance yet?"
"Yes," was the simple reply.
Chief keyed into the gunship's comms system. "Prepare for station detonation."
Cortana didn't need any other cue than that, and although Chief couldn't see the results of his handiwork since the gunship didn't have any viewports other than in the cockpit, he wasn't left wondering for long.
"Station destroyed," Cortana related matter-of-factly.
"Get anything useful out of those data banks?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied, again her tone mostly flat, with hints of what Chief thought was… anger? "I know what they did to Miranda."
The Fight Will Continue