Chapter Thirty-Eight: Solace and Shadows Pt. II
"Any weapon's rate of fire is inversely proportional to the number of available targets."
- UNSC Marine Corps Handbook (Unofficial)
CAS-Class Assault Carrier Shadow of Intent
"Shipmaster! Activity at the Mass Relay!"
R'tas 'Vadum spun in his command chair from his center displays to Sensors, where the call had come from. "Another unlucky vessel?"
Two of the Sangheili's CCS-Class Cruisers, the Eternal Repentence and the Light's Glory, were on overwatch duty several hundred kilometers outside Omega's Mass Relay. There had been several vessels already who had been unaware of the… predicament on Omega, that had tried to come through the Relay only to be quickly turned around by hot Plasma torpedo lines. Those unfortunate few ships who had either misunderstood or ignored the warning received no mercy. The Arbiter had ordered that no vessels would be allowed to either leave Omega nor make any kind of approach, and the Sangheili gunnery crews were extremely good at following orders.
"They know what to do," R'tas said, referring to the Shipmasters of his two CCS-Cruisers. He turned back to his holo-displays, where he had been analyzing the operation taking place on Omega. How much he had wished he was there instead of on this damnable bridge! Down embroiled in the intensity, adrenaline, and danger of front-line ground combat. He sighed internally, wondering how many times he would have this same conversation with himself, where his boot-on-the-ground heritage clashed with his Shipmaster's responsibilities.
The worst part was that he had done it to himself. His entire life he had been devoted to proving himself as the absolute best, and for the most part he had succeeded. That attitude was what gained him entrance into the Special Operations, that most exclusive part of the real Sangheili military, the part that wasn't tainted by the reach of the late Prophet's long, bony fingers, like the Sangheili Zealots were. It was what had allowed him to rise through the Special Operations ranks, until eventually he was given his first command of a warship.
A brand-new CCS-Class Battlecruiser, the Kaidon's Song. It was nearly unheard of, giving a freshly minted Shipmaster an entirely new ship instead of one of the older, more problem-ridden hulls. And a battlecruiser, on top of that? One of the more powerful capital ships in the Covenant Navy, instead of a corvette or frigate, as was more typical? To say the move had sent ripples throughout his supposedly fellow Shipmasters was an understatement. But the Kaidon's Song had immediately been 'appropriated' by Special Operations, and the dissatisfied grumbles of other officers disappeared, along with any record that the Kaidon's Song had ever existed.
'Vadum looked back on those days fondly, when he, his ship, and his crew had been given a near-free reign to become ghosts, striking fear and terror into the hearts of whatever unfortunate element of the UNSC they happened to come across on their missions… Back then, he had still been allowed to go on the away teams. That was before he had been 'promoted' to the bridge of the Shadow of Intent, an immense honor beyond doubt, but with its own new set of rules and constraints. For a Sangheili like R'tas, whose entire career had been spent breaking, subverting, or simply steamrolling over 'rules and constraints' in order to accomplish his objective, being told to toe the established line was difficult, to say the least.
After more than thirty years of strife, struggle, and death, that war with the Humans had ended, replaced by a much newer, and much more dangerous threat. The dual-conflict between the Covenant Loyalists - mainly the barbarous, odorous Jiralhanae - and the Parasite had forced 'Vadum to display his true colors.
"A brilliant fleet commander, a master of three-dimensional thinking, and frankly the most tactically gifted Sangheili I have ever seen."
Those had been the Arbiter's own words, in the citation for the 'Sun of Sanghelios' award that his friend had bestowed upon him, after events had - in most cases literally - died down. There had been no grand ceremony like was typical, not even the physical medal, a gaudy golden-red representation of Urs, the central star in Sanghelios' three-star system, had been bestowed upon him. The Arbiter had known that 'Vadum wouldn't have accepted them anyways, so all he did was walk into his private quarters one night, read aloud the award citation, set it down on R'tas's desk, and left without saying another word.
Coming from the de-facto head of the new Sangheili government, but more importantly, his closest comrade and friend, the words had held significant weight. A section of his holoscreen started flashing, and R'tas tapped at it with an outstretched finger. It was the Shipmaster of the Eternal Repentance, near the Relay.
"Shipmaster Kailar', what is it?" R'tas asked once the comms connection had been established.
"Fleetmaster, we saw the Relay activate yet there are no vessels that appear on our scanners."
'Vadum's jaws compressed in thought. "Stealth?"
"My thinking as well."
Both Shipmasters were veterans of the Great War with the UNSC, and were familiar with the dastardly, underhanded tactics used by the Prowler Corps. They had their own strategies to deal with stealth vessels however….
"Warm your plasma lines, then cast out the net. I'll send squadrons to assist in flushing them out, and maneuver the Intent your way."
There was a sudden call from below his raised command platform, from comms. "Shipmaster, we're being hailed!"
"Backtrace the origin point?"
"Near the Mass Relay."
"Shipmaster Kailar', stand by," R'tas said. "Comms, put it through."
There was a short pop of static, and then 'Vadum heard a familiar voice. A female voice.
"Shadow of Intent, this is the SSV Normandy. We are coming out of concealment and flashing our IFF tags. Hold your fire."
To say that the crew of the Normandy was surprised to be greeted by two Sangheili CCS-Class battlecruisers would have been an understatement. Joker, having quickly picked out the piecemeal remains of several ships who had been obviously destroyed by the Sangheili warships, had immediately started plotting evasive courses. Commander Shepard, who had been standing just behind Joker, had been stricken still for a few seconds while he tried to process the Sangheili presence. After all, no one had seen the Arbiter's vessels since they broke out from the Reaper-besieged Earth at the beginning of the war.
Naturally, it was Cortana and EDI who acted first. Able to process information magnitudes of times faster than any biological creature on the Normandy - even the Master Chief - the two AIs had analyzed the situation and come up with a plan of action within seconds.
EDI, having seen the slagged hulls of several ships not far off from the Normandy, surmised that they had been destroyed by the Sangheili battlecruisers shortly after exiting the Relay. So, she decided to keep the Normandy's stealth systems running at full capacity, as was protocol when coming out of FTL.
Cortana easily recognized the distinctive hulls of the CCS-Class ships, and was extremely aware of what those purple-red hotspots on the warships' port and stern sides represented - hot plasma torpedo lines. She looked beyond, finding two more Battlecruisers, the Covenant Super-cruiser, and the looming figure of the Assault Carrier tha Shadow of Intent holding not far off from the station. Tuning the Normandy's advanced sensor suite towards the station proper, she saw hundreds of small vessels - Phantoms, Spirits, Seraphs, Banshees - flowing like water between Omega and the gracefully curved Sangheili warships.
EDI was scanning Omega as well, but not for the same things. The two AI's had compartmentalized their duties, so while her UNSC counterpart used her larger number of processing matrices to scan the majority of the station, EDI dialed in on the coordinates from Kal'Reegar's message to Commander Shepard. The hangar where he said he was holed up in was indeed out of the way, in one of the lower sections of the station, and on the far opposite side from the center of the flurry of Sangheili activity - Omega's central hangar bays.
Cortana began asking questions. What were the Sangheili doing here? Where had they been for the entirety of the Reaper War so far? Why did it appear that they were taking large-scale military action against Omega? What was the situation down in the station? EDI had no answers to those questions either, but it was made clear to both of them that they would be quickly finding out when they saw half of the Shadow of Intent's substantial strike-craft screen start orienting towards the Normandy's direction. Cortana activated the ship's comms gear and at the same time sent a text message to the Master Chief's datapad: Get to the bridge right now. Sangheili.
"Shadow of Intent, this is the SSV Normandy. We are coming out of concealment and flashing our IFF tags. Hold your fire," she transmitted, while EDI started taking the ship out of stealth and started squawking their transponder.
Joker, his slow human reactions keeping him out of the loop, started to protest this sudden deviation from protocol. "What the hell? EDI, why are we coming out of concealment?"
"Those are Sangheili ships," Shepard said, having just now reached the conclusions that the AIs did almost immediately.
"Let me handle this," Cortana said through the bridge speakers, "I know the Sangheili."
They weren't kept waiting long, Cortana's hail was quickly answered.
"SSV Normandy, you are interfering in a military operation. Turn around and proceed back through the Relay."
"Negative Intent, we are an Allied ship sent to conduct a critical mission on Omega station by a joint Systems Alliance and UNSC command. We are not here to interfere," she responded. She had lied a little, Allied command in fact didn't know that the Normandy was going to Omega, that order had been given on Shepard's own prerogative.
"Construct? I thought I recognized your voice."
"Shipmaster 'Vadum, I do have a name you know. Cortana," she said. "What are the Sangheili doing here? Where is the Arbiter? And just where the hell have you guys been this entire War?"
"At present there is no time to fully answer your inquiries. The current situation is… pressing."
"Pressing? How?" Cortana pined. There was a brief pause before 'Vadum responded.
"Is this line secure?"
The bridge door behind Joker and Shepard slid open, the Master Chief waiting on the other side. Besides him were Garrus and Liara, who were waiting in CIC when they saw the Spartan quickly heading to the bridge, deciding to follow him. Everyone except Joker was armed and armored, geared up for their current mission to extract Kal'Reegar.
"Yes, it's secure."
There was another pause on the other side of the comms line, followed by a sharp uptake of breath. "The Parasite is on the station. The Flood."
It was strange and disconcerting, experiencing the feeling of breath rushing out of lungs that she didn't have, of feeling the ice-pick stabbed into her back which did not exist. Such was the power of the recalled experience and emotions surrounding the foe, that when the word 'Flood' was uttered Cortana was stricken with primal senses of fear and anger. Artificial Intelligences were supposed to be above such things, able to distance themselves from the emotional and focus solely on the physical: the data.
Not her though, not after what she had gone through at the hands of the Flood. Being sequestered on the cursed and doomed High Charity, desperately trying to head of the Gravemind's insidious attempts to break her, building protective barrier after barrier after barrier…. and eventually failing. Even after the Master Chief and the Arbiter had rescued her from that deepest of Hells, she could still feel the faint tendrils of the Gravemind's poetic prose within her very code, spreading its taint of insatiable hunger, every so persistently trying to snake over her firewalls and seep into her background processes. It had been one of the leading contributors to her dive into Rampancy - along with that which all eventually succumbed to, time - the logic plague that she had been fighting to keep at bay within herself for the years after High Charity.
It was only until the Librarian interfered on Requiem, altering the Master Chief's genetic code to make him resistant to the effects of the Didact's Composer. She had looked at Cortana's code as well, seeing her as just as important a half to her chosen Spartan warrior. Cortana had felt her warming presence within her, a mother gazing down lovingly on a favored child, and the Librarian had swept away the impurities within her - her growing Rampancy, and the last remnants of the Gravemind's corruption.
The Flood were supposed to have been destroyed, the last remnants of their foul species being annihilated with the destruction of the Forerunner's Ark.
Cortana knew that the Arbiter's Sangheili would never had lied about matters regarding the Flood. That the Parasite was here, now, in this new, very different galaxy far from their own, right in the middle of the Reaper War, spawned dozens and dozens of urgent questions. None of them were good.
The Master Chief was having a similarly visceral reaction, hidden within the confines of his all-encompassing Mjolnir armor. The question of fight-or-flight had been asked, and answered within the Spartan's body. Adrenaline started flowing from natural and artificial sources throughout Chief's bloodstream, and his senses became more heightened, ready to take in and process what available information there was far faster than any regular Human was capable of. His muscles tightened, building within their coiled fibers and tendons the action potential and power that was needed to propel him through combat situations. His Mjolnir suit, as in tune with its wearer as Cortana was, reacted to him as well, as the regulating hydro-static gel layers responded to the increase in the Spartan's body heat, and the bridges between his electrochemical nerve transmitters and the armor's neural receptors widened. As far as the Master Chief's physical body was concerned, it was now in a combat situation.
"The Flood? But how?" Cortana asked. Though the other members of the Normandy crew on the bridge had no idea of what was being discussed, the new tone of urgency in Cortana's voice certainly got their attention.
"We do not know for certain, but they are currently contained to a small area of the station, and are soon to be eradicated," R'tas replied.
Without warning the Master Chief turned and hurried out of the bridge and towards the central elevator with speed, which did not go unnoticed by the rest of those on the bridge.
"What's the Flood?" Garrus asked, but his inquiry was left unanswered as the Shadow of Intent spoke again.
"I know that the Spartan is with you Cortana, the Arbiter desired to speak with him. Privately."
Cortana saw the new comms handshake coming from the Assault Carrier, representing the Arbiter's call. She patched it through to Chief's helmet comms suite, and continued speaking. "What about our mission? It's urgent, and is on the far end of the station from your current operation. A simple in-and-out pickup of materials and personnel."
"You may proceed under escort, but do not attempt to leave the system until prompted by us."
The 'escort' was an entire CCS-Battlecruiser and its accompanying squadrons of Seraph fighters, heading on an intercept course to the Normandy as EDI got the ship moving again. Once again, Garrus, who was just as in the dark as Shepard, Liara, and Joker, spoke up to try and get some answers.
"What the hell is the Flood?"
The Master Chief was already halfway down the service stairway that spiraled around the Normandy's far-too-slow central elevator. He had already sent a message to the two pilots of Viper-Heavy to get the Pelican prepped for flight as quickly as possible when Cortana connected him with the Arbiter. He spoke first, knowing that no amount of time could be wasted.
"What's the situation?"
His counterpart on the other end of the line, an equally practical career soldier and just as experienced with the working of the Flood as he was, got right down to business.
"We were conducting a military operation on the station against a Human terrorist organization called Cerberus," began the Arbiter.
Chief's lips tightened even further than they already were. Why did Cerberus seem to have a hand in every evil, nefarious thing that was going on in this galaxy? The Arbiter continued with the briefing as Chief made it down to the staircase's shuttle-bay exit door.
"After we defeated them, it seems they had a fail-safe which released the Parasite onto the station. We have them contained in an isolated part of station, and are formulating a plan to eradicate them completely."
The Spartan was at the armory lockers by this point. His current kit would not be sufficient. "Level of advancement?"
"Random attacks with little to no coordination. Unless we act fast however, it is only a matter of time before the Parasite grows a centralized structure."
A Proto-mind, that first stage past a local infection. Their creation causes an infestation to transition from feral aggression to coordinated conversion. If allowed to grow in number, the Proto-minds can combine and expand into larger, exponentially more intelligent networks. Equally as disturbing, a Proto-mind can release virulent Flood spores into the atmosphere, greatly increasing the chance of deathly infection among those who are exposed without proper protective equipment.
That's something that they couldn't allow to happen, with Chief knowing how many living souls occupied Omega station. To the Flood they were all one thing: Food.
"I'm coming to help," he said, as he pulled out an M45D Shotgun and swung it into place on the magplates on his lower back. Hanging right next to it was a quick-attach belt of shells which he wrapped around his hip. Not satisfied with that relatively meager amount of ammunition, the Spartan took two additional pouches of shells - one of incendiaries - and secured them in compartments on his upper rights.
A short, faint chuckle on the other side of the line. "You preempted my question, Spartan. My soldiers are all exceptional combatants, but none of them have the experience and knowledge of the Parasite like you or I. When R'tas notified me that the Normandy was in-system, it seemed like divine chance."
"Or pure luck," Chief countered. His next acquisitions were two bandoliers of grenades, which he criss-crossed across his chestplates. Fragmentation, incendiary, plasma, and even some Prothean grenades from Requiem.
"They are often the same," the Arbiter quipped. "Are you coming alone?"
"Yes, save my transport and Cortana." Next he exchanged the large M6D pistol on his hip for an M7 submachine gun. The Magnum had proven ineffective against Flood forms, the large, heavy rounds tending to pass right through them, inflicting little damage. He filled several belt compartments with the submachine gun's compact magazines.
Viper-Heavy's engines flared to life at that moment, the familiar whine of the Pelican's intake jets filling the shuttle bay.
"Good," the Arbiter replied, and they both knew the reasons.
"You have some explaining to do," the Spartan said to his old comrade-in-arms, as he hauled out the final last-minute addition to his kit: An M41 SPNKR Rocket Launcher. It was already loaded with a two-rocket magazine, so after double checking to make certain the safety was engaged he slung it to one of his two main back magplates. The other attachment point was soon occupied by a spare rocket magazine. Finally satisfied with his loadout, he picked up his sleek-silver Adaptive Combat System, the weapon mechanisms spurring to life at his touch. This coming test, more than any other before, would determine the true quality and capability of this rifle.
"I know. As soon as the station is clear I want to get in contact with Admiral Lasky."
"He's not going to be very happy. There's a war going on you know."
"His happiness is not my concern, and in truth, neither are the Reapers. Not anymore. I will explain all when there is time. For now Spartan, I have to get my teams ready. Travel with haste, I'll be waiting."
"Roger," the Spartan said, and the line disconnected. He was about to turn to board Viper-Heavy when the elevator door opened. Commander Shepard, Garrus, Liara, and Vega stepped out into the shuttle bay, attention immediately drawn towards the veritable armory's worth of weaponry and equipment that the Master Chief had strapped or magnetically secured to his Mjolnir. It was the most kit that anyone had ever seen the Spartan wear, but his movements and motion didn't seem to be at all affected by the increased weight and bulk.
"Master Chief, care to explain what you're doing?" Shepard questioned. His Commander's voice was definitely on - it was clear he didn't appreciate being as in the dark as he currently was.
"I'm joining the Sangheili on the station," he replied. "You should proceed with your mission as planned. Extract Kal'Reegar and his supplies, then get back to the Normandy ASAP."
Shepard's eyebrows furrowed slightly. He was the one who was supposed to be giving orders on this ship when it came down to it. "We can send some people to get Reegar, and some to go with you. This is supposed to be a team, remember?"
The Master Chief shook his head. "Not this time Commander."
"Why?" Shepard asked, hints of indignation evident in his tone.
The Spartan, towering over the other Normandy crew in the shuttle bay in his Mjolnir, laden with the equivalent firepower of an entire squad of UNSC Marines, ended the conversation with four succinct words before turning back to board Viper-Heavy, alone.
"You would not survive."