Hi. It's been a hot minute.

Just a quick A/N to announce that I am actively working on rewriting the beginning of this fiction. I am unhappy with how I introduce and string events in until about chapter 12. I started writing this almost five years ago - and the writing shows. Rather than uploading a version 2.0 of something that is unfinished, I am beginning the process of updating the beginning chapters.

Special thanks to EternalCanadian for use of his OC's.

Please enjoy.


Chapter 29

OFFICE OF NAVAL INTELLIGENCE
CLASSIFICATION: PRIORITY ONE ALPHA

0600 HOURS, December 15th, 2559

/Priority Message COMM-SCRIBED/PTS 9386-9
39489-72738-SO /CINCONI Serin Osman
07960-48392-TH /CNO/FLTADM Terrence Hood

ECC: 'Security Council'

RE: BLACKBIRD Update

Terrence,

The initial report should be making its way to your desk soon, but I figured I'd give you a heads up. BLACKBIRD has fledged its wings and we're trying to parse the enormity of the data we're being delivered every hour. We don't have enough AI's - smart or dumb - to begin to make sense of it. I hope you'll understand the urgency of my attached report. Would you be able to do me favor and put your weight behind it? It'll sound better if you're the one to advocate for it.

I'm happy to report Section One's gamble has so far paid off. For a civilization as advanced as the Republic is, Section I reported their computer systems were surprisingly easy to break into and decipher once we obtained a set of master keys. I might add that BB thinks this level of computer compromise gives the archaic Windows XP operating system a run for its money. We've mostly siphoned off documents and data about troop deployments but we've found some choice tidbits about refinements the Kaminoans are making to the clone troopers production.

Think about it, Terrence. This is a level of intelligence about our 'allies' that we could never have dreamed of. If we could have pulled a similar stunt decades ago with the Covenant, who knows how fast we could have ended the war.

We have found access to documents containing detailed schematics, supply line schedules, research and development grants, and the entire genetic code of the Republic's army. We can only imagine what BLACKBIRD will yield once it hijacks intergalactic communications to somewhere like Coruscant. Section One has very deservedly popped some champagne. We're looking to mount another mission - this time to a Separatist controlled world. I'll have more details for you in 36 hours. We're still working on figuring out a filetype we can easily convert the Republic's files to so that we can speed up the process ten-fold. We're making progress.

Chatter from the Separatists suggests there's a big operation that's happening soon according to Section II. Unfortunately, Republic Intelligence hasn't yet found a target, but we'll likely know soon. I dearly wish we could have had BLACKBIRD in place two weeks ago.

I can't attend today's Security Council meeting with President Charet, but BB will take notes for me. He's a little foul today, so don't mind him too much.

-SO


OFFICE OF NAVAL INTELLIGENCE
CLASSIFICATION: PRIORITY ONE ALPHA

0900 HOURS, December 15th, 2559

/Priority Message COMM-SCRIBED/PTS 9386-9
26582-72839-MS /Senior Communications Director Michael Sullivan
07960-48392-TH /CINCONI Serin Osman

RE: Implementation of UNSC 93-2B

Admiral,

Per your authorization of Directive 93-2B, we have limited superluminal connections between all human-occupied settlements. We're still in the process of getting hot-patch fixes for some of the old equipment used around colonies like New Buffalo or Zakouma-Kongo. We used the artificially limited traffic as an excuse to reinstall new communication equipment in these places. This will make controlling the flow of comm traffic much easier without the Ad-hoc patches previously required.

Analysis of recent trends has found a 403% spike in conspiracy theories surrounding the war since last week's 'expose' by the supposed 'ex-Marine'. Nusanaga and Jethro are two of the worst offenders for propagating and disseminating misinformation. I would only point to the enormous amount of censored media content we've forced TwitterBook to take down. Has President Charet seen these numbers? We might need to prepare to put our own spin on them. I normally wouldn't recommend cooking the books, even in ONI, but this stuff is going to get her attention and - loathe as I am to say it - that's going to make Section III's job much, much harder in Andromeda if we're forced to pull out.

People are not happy about what's going on, Admiral. It's clear the public does not support military involvement of any kind in Andromeda. We're working right now on putting a couple of PR initiatives together to frame the whole thing as a measure to protect the public from future threats. We've also seen a number of searches related to emigration to the Andromeda galaxy spike 11,200% last week - though I should let you know this is the first week we've started tracking this search. This trend suggests we might want to start searching for people smugglers in addition to Jackals trying to cart away DC-15s.

The Insurrection is also capitalizing on everything - though you and I already know that. Innie-connected platforms are serving up wild claims about the Republic, the Separatists, the Jedi, and the war as a whole. This message isn't to describe these. You may access my Linx platform to find the relevant report there. We're doing what we can to squash threats as soon as they arise, but there are not enough agents to go around. We've had to resort to involving local planetary militias and police forces in some cases - though we've been careful not to leave our fingerprints all over this.

In today's Section II meeting, I'll hear the latest reports and forward the summary findings to you. As discussed before, we might need to turn over some of our findings to local law enforcement. This will likely be done on a case by case basis. Section II would love it if we could borrow one of BB's sub-routines for a day to help with this. That would ease algorithm optimization and creation tremendously.

I know you're due to speak with Admiral Hood and President Charet later so I'll send a follow-up message in eight hours if you've haven't replied before then.

I'm waiting for Section I to turn over monitoring Republic communications from BLACKBIRD over to us. We'll start our analysis as soon as we get the first file.

Regards,
Sully


Penthouse Suite, Senate Apartment Complex, Galactic City, Coruscant
04:30 Hours Galactic Standard Time

Senator Padme Amidala of Naboo

"My lady?"

The voice was vague and echoed in her dreams. She recognized the voice, but she was far too tired for her to place it.

"Ehm, excuse me, my lady?" it asked again.

Somewhere in her sleep, she felt a cool metal hand lay on her shoulder.

"What is it?" she half-mumbled.

A response was heard but she couldn't make heads or tails of it.

Suddenly, the lights flicked on and she felt herself being dragged from sleep.

She awoke to see C-3PO, her personal protocol droid looking over her. He was hunched and his head twitched slightly, the way the droid always would when he was anxious.

"Threepio?"

"M'lady, my deepest apologies for the interruption."

She blearily rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up to see Captain Typho, her Chief of Security standing in the doorway. A cluster of her handmaidens and attendants pushed through the door.

"What's going on?"

"I think he can answer that better than I can," Typho said, gesturing to the C-3PO who handed her a small holo-projector.

She activated it and a prerecorded holo-scan of her friend and colleague, Bail Organa, materialized.

"Senator Amidala, my Office just received word last night that Umbarra has voted to secede from the Republic. They have announced intentions to join the Separatists. An emergency session is to be held today in the Senate for a vote on military operations. I need to speak with you as soon as it is convenient."

Padme clicked the holoprojector and it fizzled off with a hiss.

She was wide awake now.

"How long ago was this sent?" she asked urgently, shaking the thick blankets and silken sheets away from her.

"Only ten minutes ago."

"Captain, prepare my shuttle. I want to be at the Senate Building within the hour.

"Yes milady." he bowed before jumping out the room leaving her staff to attend to her.

She frowned as her staff immediately set about making sure she was prepared for another long day of legislative work leaving her time to think.

The writing had been on the wall for months now. Ever since Umbara's Senator, Mee Deechi, had been assassinated, the planet had been long rumored to be becoming more and more disillusioned with the Senate. Efforts to reconcile the planet had failed.

"M'lady?"

One of her handmaidens snapped her out of her thoughts.

"Yes, Talitha?"

"I'm afraid that we won't be able to prepare your bath or your normal breakfast if you insist on being there in an hour".

"That's fine. I'm not sure I even have the stomach for it this morning".

That part was a lie, she was actually quite hungry, but the Republic needed her this morning.

Talitha's expression softened with relief before she ordered Amidala to hold her head up as she was dressed and her thoughts returned to the war.

Much as she didn't want to admit it, Umbarra's secession had been a matter of when rather than if for a long time.

But so soon?

There was a concerning trend in the Senate over the last revolution. With any vote of military action, there was a push to escalate conflicts all across the board, a trend that had troubled her deeply in recent months. Each of these pushes inevitably led, in one way or another, to Palpatine consolidating powers in accordance with the emergency powers act. With no obvious end in sight to the war, even with the arrival of the Orionids, Palpatine didn't seem interested in giving up power.

As soon as she was dressed and her hair was put in place, she was surprised with a small breakfast served by a trio of waiter droids with a tuttering protocol droid hovering about. She graciously wolfed it down before approaching a small holo-terminal and made a mental note to find a way to show Threepio her thanks.

"Good morning Senator," Organa's voice wearily greeted her as soon as a connection had been established.

"Good morning to you as well Senator. I got your message. I'll be at the Senate building in thirty minutes."

"Excellent. Senator Chuchi and the others have already arrived. Umbara is a planet that cannot fall under Separatist control. Kashyyk is effectively cut off leaving the Separatists ample room to maneuver and flank our forces. We've all read the briefings. The Umbarans are also naturally gifted scientists. If their work falls into Separatist hands for good, the war will be much more difficult to win - we both know what that will do.

"I understand. Do you believe we still have diplomatic options?"

"I tried contacting their embassy as soon as I heard the news, but it appears they've suspended all communications indefinitely. They've urged all their citizenry to return home. If diplomacy is to win the day, 'aggressive negotiations' might be unavoidable."

Padme frowned as the term her husband had coined more than a year ago in a dining room on Naboo was used by her colleague. She had used the term many times afterward with little thought about how the term would be associated with her. If someone ever made the connection back to a certain Jedi...

No. She didn't want to go there. Not now. Not today.

"We've seen the writing on the wall since Deechi's assassination. However unfortunate Umbarra's secession is, you and I both know that our chief concern is the Chancellor. We both know that he's been working on a bill that redefines planetary defense policy. We'll have to see whether he moves to introduce it today."

"How committed are you to bringing Umbarra back peacefully?" Senator Organa asked.

"I'm committed to finding a peaceful option, Bail. Have you tried reaching out through our back-channels?"

"No, but given the lack of response from anyone on Umbarra, I doubt we'll be able to get through. I'll work on it, though I can't promise results". The Alderaanian Senator shook his head. "I guess all we can do is see what happens."


As Amidala had predicted, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to bring Umbarra back into the fold by force though they hadn't yet announced their intentions to join the Confederacy. Though she and Senator Organa had stood up and given an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, hotter heads won out in the end. With military force now authorized, it was up to the Generals to come up with a plan to bring Umbarra back quickly and cleanly.

In a move Amidala thought strange, the Orionids never materialized during the entire process. The Orionid delegation tried to be active participants in the Senate. During the vote on terms of engagement, the alliance of the Orionids had been brought up. The terms of the alliance treaty stated that the Orionids were to offer military assistance in all conflicts against the Confederacy. Amidala supposed that, as Umbarra had made no such move to openly declare an alliance with the Separatists, this didn't qualify as a necessary condition for military assistance to be called upon.

"Senator Amidala."

She looked up from her thoughts as she stood absentmindedly in a circle of her colleagues. The Chancellor was making his way towards her, rounding the bend of the Senate atrium.

"Chancellor," she greeted respectfully.

"I wanted to congratulate you on your address today." Palpatine smiled warmly. "I've always enjoyed your orations".

"We're all saddened to hear that Umbara doesn't feel like they can trust the Senate, I just hope that the conflict can be resolved without much bloodshed, Chancellor."

"My sentiments as well," he said sadly.

The Chancellor straightened his composure and stood erect.

"I was at a conference this morning with some of our strategists. They believe that if the Orionids were to distract the Umbarrans' attention on the ground, we might be able to make this a clean operation. I believe they were recommending Jedi Generals Anakin Skywalker and -"

"The Orionids are helping?" Amidala interrupted.

"Why, yes they are". Palpatine said, slightly confused at her response.

"Chancellor, Umbara may have defected, but where were the Orionid Diplomats?" A nearby Senator Benabi asked as he passed, now involving himself in the conversation. "Shouldn't they have participated?"

"I passed along a message to their delegation, though I don't know why they didn't appear. Senators, we know that sooner or later, Umbarra will join the Separatists. What other reasonable option do they have? Regardless, I'm sure they will cooperate if they are interested in keeping their alliance. It is not in their best interest to break their word. If they want to see their thirst for revenge quenched, then they will bear an equal burden."

Privately, Amidala didn't see the Orionids as beings that had healthy appetites for revenge. They had other reasons for being here and they certainly weren't here to "bearing an equal burden".

"Chancellor, we must be going," an aide urgently whispered.

Palpatine turned and frowned.

"Excuse me, I have other matters to attend to. I will see you both in tomorrow's session then?"

Without even a moment to respond, he wished them a good day and disappeared almost as soon as he had arrived.

Amidala mulled over the conversation. It was probably worth a conversation with the Orionid Diplomats to see whether they even got the message. She couldn't imagine they would be too pleased about committing their already limited troops into a planetary invasion.

"Cheer up Senator Amidala, we should be able to see this thing end soon, what with General Skywalker being involved and all," Senator Benabi said, speaking up.

Her heart and stomach twisted painfully.

Ani.

He would be stuck in the middle of this as well.

Though she was accustomed to hearing about her husband being thrown into the middle of the most treacherous places in the Outer Rim, it still made her worry. Umbara was referred to as the "Shadow Planet" because it was perpetually shrouded in darkness. To be without the light of the sun for days made her a little nervous.

"Yes, I'm sure everything will be quite alright," she replied rather woodenly.

"Are you feeling alright, Senator?"

"No, I haven't been feeling myself," she lied, mentally kicking herself for letting her feelings show for a second. "In fact, I think I might call it a day and head home."

"Then I wish you the best." Senator Benabi smiled as he turned away.

Amidala frowned. She hadn't been planning to return for a few more hours, but there were some things that she could take care of there.

Again, her thoughts turned to her husband.

Anakin. How she longed for this war to be over so that he could be safe from harm or danger.

As soon as she was far enough away from her colleagues, she informed Captain Typho of the change in her schedule before heading for the shuttle docks. She was heading home, but she would pay a visit to the Orionid embassy on the way.


The Citadel
Lola Sayu, Separatist Controlled Space

Special Operations Officer Ripa 'Talam

A loud rhythmic metallic sound woke Ripa from his sleep. It sounded like it was coming towards their cells.

He looked around. Kota was asleep in the corner.

This didn't bode well.

"Kota!" he whispered fiercely.

The other Sangheili didn't stir.

The steps were getting close fast. There were many of them.

Ripa looked around, thinking fast. With any luck, they would identify Kota first and take him. This might give him a chance to seize a weapon. He felt a moment of remorse for throwing the Sangheili in harm's way, but, he was a traitor.

The footsteps drew closer and closer. Ripa braced himself. 20 meters. 10 meters. 5 meters.

The sound of a scream echoed throughout the cell as the door opened... in a different cell.

"You will come with us."

The voice was muffled, but it sounded like one of the Magnaguards. They were restraining Tamtree and forcing her out the door.

"No!" Quinn howled from the other cell. "Nooo! You can't doooo this!"

Kota stirred and sat up quickly.

"They are taking her," Ripa whispered.

"So, they are," Kota said unmoved.

Tamtree was in the hallway now, her shrieking cries echoing up and down the hallway.

"I need to get to her."

"You?" Kota snorted. "Why do you care about this human?"

"Even in bonds, I can still try and be of some use. She has information that I need.

"Ever the Officer, aren't you. Well," Kota chuckled. "You won't be getting anywhere with restraints around your wrists."

Ripa examined his restraints. They consisted of a rigid set of metal cuffs with what appeared to be an electronic lock on them.

Kota was right. He wasn't going anywhere without the cuffs being released. At least, not without help.

"If you have any honor left, you will help me get her?"

"How naive. What is 'honor' to someone like me?"

"Ripa gritted his mandibles in frustrations."

An idea formed in his head.

He turned away. "You are a coward, Kota. You are heresy to all things Sangheili. You make the word 'Hoshomee a heresy."

Kota tensed at the word heresy.

"Hold your tongue, whelp."

"No," Ripa said, standing taller and turning to face them. "If there are gods anymore, I should surely hope the weight of your sins drags your ruktgost children with you to the pits of Que'lo."

Kota rose from where he lay and seemed to swell in size. His eyes had narrowed to angry yellow slits that burned brightly.

"Even chained... I can kill you where you stand."

"Then do it. Finish the job that you got me into."

Kota suddenly gave a tremendous roar that shook the cell. He lowered his arms like a club and charged moving with breathtaking speed that nearly caught Ripa off-guard. In a moment Kota had leaped, both feet directly at his head.

Ripa ducked and rolled as the full weight of the Sangheili bore down on the wall. The wall did not give but instead gave a deafening gong! reverberated with the force of the impact.

Kota was also fast using the impact to push off the wall and tackle Ripa to the ground.

Heavy blows came from all directions all at once and Ripa's vision exploded into stars as the Sangheili clubbed him with his manacled fists.

"How. DARE. You. Speak. About. My. Family. Like. That!" he howled.

Ripa was being pressed into the ground under the weight of the other Sangheili and he felt his ribs begin to strain under the weight.

He seized control of his panic at how quickly the situation had gone to Kota's favor and took a painful breath before arching his back and throwing the Sangheili away from him. He rolled and brought his foot down pinning a leg and sweeping the other leg to hit the back of Kota's pinned leg. This caused the knee to hyperextend and the Sangheili gave a howl as it dropped him to one leg.

Ripa was on him in a flash kicking at the other leg. Kota pivoted at the kick went wide allowing him to kick at his crotch. Kota leaped back and the two warriors started circling each other.

"Everything I have done, I have done to try and give my children a better life!"

"Then you've only condemned your children to a life of misery!" Ripa roared.

Kota launched another kick but Ripa rolled underneath and counter-kicked with both legs launching the Sangheili up and away from him. He hit the opposite wall which gave another loud bell tone.

Ripa rolled back towards the corner by the door. If he planned this right...

Suddenly, the door hissed open, and a magnaguard wielding an electrostaff burst in.

Ripa froze. This wasn't part of the plan.

The magnaguard wheeled towards Kota and immediately sprang into an offensive stance. Kota stopped his circling and started scrabbling backward against the wall.

With the magnaguard's attention diverted, Ripa gathered himself before leaping in an all-out tackle.

The weight of Ripa's body drove the droid in a wild stagger to the wall where it slightly crushed Kota. Ripa's vision exploded with stars as his head collided with the metal body of the droid. He felt the knee joint of the magnaguard's right leg give from the sudden impact and Kota contracted for a second before giving a roar and suddenly exploding with power. The droid staggered back but wheeled around with a solid fist strike that knocked one of Kota's teeth out before dropping the Sangheili like a sack of a zuke fruit.

The droid immediately turned back and raised the staff high over its head to deliver a downwards waited for a fraction of a second before diving upwards, using his restraints to catch the electrostaff mid-blow.

Ripa almost blacked out as the current from the staff conducted through his cuffs and into his body seemingly setting every nerve and muscle on fire.

Click.

The restraints deactivated and fell with a heavy thunk to the floor.

With his hands now free, Ripa sidestepped before twisting himself onto the droid's back. It flailed suddenly, dropping the staff, trying to get Ripa off of him. Ripa's hands quickly found the droid's neck and he summoned his strength before twisting as hard as he could.

The droid suddenly seized up and dropped to the ground as metal twisted and broke tearing circuits and servos.

The SpecOps Officer collapsed atop the droid and heaved for a second, trying to clear the spots from his eyes and catch his breath. Slowly, his senses returned to normal and he picked up the still sparking staff and regarded Kota who had fallen in the corner unconscious.

A surge of pity and regret stopped him as he turned his back which surprised him.

What pity did this traitor deserve?

Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank.

He realized more guards were coming and looked back towards Kota.

If Kota was going to die, he at least deserved to die with his hands unbound.

With a single stroke, Ripa jabbed the staff into Kota's restraints. The unconscious Kota convulsed for a second as the electrical activity fired muscles at random. The restraints disengaged and fell and Ripa propped the unconscious warrior into the corner.

The guards were almost on top of him. He would need to move quickly. He rushed out of the cell and turned to see a patrol of battle droids approaching him.

"Hey! You're not supposed to be - "

Ripa hurled the staff as hard as he could. It hit the droid that looked to be in charge of the small patrol which delivered an electric burst that dropped it to the ground, a smoldering impact crater on its chest.

"What the?!" another squawked before Ripa seized its blaster and executed it. He ducked behind another causing its three remaining allies to shoot without stopping to consider the life of their comrade.

Ripa kicked and the staff bounced upwards allowing him the chance to grab it and swing it in a wide arc that caught the remaining droids and dropped them to the ground.

He surveyed the carnage for a second before tossing one of the fallen rifles in the cell with Kota and scooping one up for himself. It was awkward to hold, but it was a weapon.

No more patrols ran out to meet him, though he suspected it would only be a matter of time before someone else came to check up on his cell.

He looked back at Kota slumped in the corner with a weapon at his feet one more time.

William, he suspected, would be proud.

Ripa wheeled about trying to remember which way the magnaguards had taken their prisoner and then set off in that direction as quickly as he could.


East Quarter, Tipoca City, Kamino
December 15th, 2559: 1455 Hours
Standard UNSC Military Time/Calendar

"Locus", "Spartan-IV" Operative

"Do you ever wonder why we're here?"

Locus looked up from the M45 he was cleaning.

"Was that rhetorical?"

"'Course that was rhetorical," Felix said, as he examined and sharpened a knife of his. The blade slipped for a minute and sliced into his finger, causing him to swear.

Locus ignored the outburst, but even so, looked ever so slightly to the door. They were in an isolated booth in the observation platform that overlooked the joint-exercises going on below. They technically weren't supposed to be here, but just who was going to stop them?

"You know Locus, sometimes I just want to hurl myself off the edge of this city into an ocean infested with sharks."

"So," he paused, "why don't you?"

"The seas here are filled with space-whales, not sharks."

"Maybe you'd like to test that theory?" he suggested.

Locus went back to cleaning his shotgun, but Felix had stopped cleaning his weapon, his attention and gaze were suddenly fixed on some distant point beyond his view.

"Hey," he asked slowly from the depths of thought. "What's the deal with Fireteam Shadow?"

Locus stopped cleaning and looked up and eyed his partner suspiciously.

"Why do you want to know?"

"Think about it Locus. We're running out of time here. Control is going to want an update soon. When we tell him that we don't have much to show for our time here, he's going to be unhappy. You and I both know what that's like when he's unhappy. This whole thing is going to go up in smoke real quickly if people start asking questions."

"No." Locus gave him a hard stare, uneasy of where this conversation was going.

"You haven't even heard my fantastic reasoning yet!" his partner protested.

"I don't need to hear your "fantastic reasoning". Those two are dangerous."

"Look who's calling the kettle black."

"Felix - " he began warningly.

"You're right, that was racist," his partner continued, oblivious to his interruption.

He set the shotgun down to the side now thoroughly annoyed at his partner. "That's not the - "

"Look, Ortez - "

"Stop saying that."

"No, listen here."

"If you think I -"

"Those two are perfect for the job."

"Felix!"

"****, Locus! Tell me they don't fit his criteria!" he shot back, standing up, upending his gear everywhere.

He took a second to collect his anger and compartmentalize it before meeting his partner's furious gaze again.

"They technically do..." he said through gritted teeth. "Both display abnormal levels of aggressiveness, are prone to violent outbursts, and express no guilt for the attempted murder of Rapier Five."

Felix relaxed a little bit.

"You're right, and d'ya know what's better than that?"

Locus fixed him with a hard stare.

"They're motivated," Felix said, picking up his gear and repackaging it. "They just don't know it yet."

"And, when Fireteam Castle is out of the picture, or at least far from their thoughts?" He asked slowly. "What then?"

Felix stopped, bemused.

"You know Locus, I'm surprised you don't see it."

"Then enlighten me already. I grow tired of you talking around the point."

"Do we know why a couple of murderous amnesiacs - that nobody has ever heard of, by the way - are on the Infinity?"

Locus considered the question. After a few seconds, he concluded that he had no idea. It had been three days and no word had been given concerning the condition of Shadows Three and Four. Far as anyone knew, they were still being interrogated and imprisoned.

"Had things been done by the book those two would have been on the first ship back to Earth in manacles two days ago. The alternative is that Captain Lasky would have publicly exercised his powers as the ship's Captain and either imprisoned or executed them. That hasn't happened yet." Felix continued.

Locus considered. Felix was right. There had been an unusual level of silence from Captain Lasky.

"Are you suggesting that you know the reason they aren't on a ship back to Earth?"

"I am," Felix said with no shortage of confidence.

He considered this idea for another second.

"Don't you see?" Felix said, suddenly looking bemused. "This has Office of Naval Intelligence practically dripping all over it. Those guys have got their ****** paws all over it."

"It's possible," he conceded, "but why would ONI intervene to keep a killer on the ship?"

Felix laughed. "Why does ONI do anything? This is still the billion-credit question of the day," Felix grinned, cracking his knuckles.

The thought unsettled him, but, his partner's logic was sound.

"Are there any other candidates?" he asked, already knowing the answer Felix would give.

"We've been over this Ortez."

He bristled at the use of his name.

"Control wants results now. We don't have the time to be ******* about on this ship trying to manipulate people over the course of a few months. We've got weeks. We've made the most progress on these two. Let's just finish the job and collect our paycheck. The farther I am from this stupid galaxy with their stupid space opera, the happier I'll be."

"If those two somehow go rogue and escape from their leash, do you know whos problem that will be?"

"Theirs. Far as we're concerned, we're only being paid to give Hargrove his assets. Once he has them, it's his responsibility what he does with them."

"And if they escape before we can deliver them to him?" Locus said, pointing out the flaw in his partner's logic.

"We'll make sure that won't happen."

He didn't find this to be a very sound idea.

"So, do you have a plan or not?" he asked bluntly.

"...well, no. I haven't come up with one that won't have us gunned down by a dozen other Spartans," Felix admitted. "I'm working on that part. Feel free to help me whenever you want. We can cover our exit strategy with the information Control gave us. ****, we can even get access to Daniel and Isaac ourselves if we need to."

"This is not a conversation we should have here."

"Would you rather have it on the Infinity? Roland's already been blind to events once. We do not need to draw his attention to us."

"Then figure out a safer way to do it," he growled. "When you do that, talk to me."

Locus checked his mission clock and scowled.

"Come on, we're late for our exercise."

"You just had to rain on my parade, didn't you."

He grunted again to his partner and he grumpily started packing away his gear before picking up his shotgun, and pointing to the door, before the two of them vanished.


Conference Room 4J, Orionid Embassy,
Senatorial District, Galactic City, Coruscant
15:00 Hours Galactic Standard Time

Senator Padme Amidala

"Ambassador Kabeya, what do you mean you never got a communication?"

The Orionid Ambassador, a dark-skinned man with a neatly trimmed beard regarded her with confusion.

"Senator, I don't know what to tell you. I'm looking at the logs right here and we don't have anything from Chancellor Palpatine's Office in the last 48 hours."

The man typed the datapad and scrolled through a few screens.

"Yeah, there's nothing in spam either?"

"Spam?" Padme asked confused?

The Ambassador waved the question away and looked intently at her.

"You had no idea that the Senate voted to use military force to bring Umbarra back into the Republic?"

"No..." he paused, then looked up with concern spreading across his face. "What did they do?"

"We voted to authorize military force against Umbarra, a planet that has just seceded from the Republic."

"What kind of military force?"

Padme hesitated.

"I don't know. I'm telling you all that I know."

"But... did they join the Confederacy?"

"No. Not that I've heard."

"And they want us to join them in fighting?"

"The Chancellor seems to believe that it doesn't matter, that Umbarra is going to declare it's an alliance with the Separatist cause... but if that doesn't happen - "

"That would be in violation of our treaty!" Ambassador Kabeya exclaimed before standing up.

"Where are you going?" Padme asked.

"I need to talk to my superiors. If we're being dragged into a conflict that we're not obligated to fight in, people need to know. Can you come with me? We need to sort this out right now!"

Amidala obliged and the Ambassador escorted her out quickly followed by two Spartans that were standing guard.


The Bridge, Infinity-class Supercarrier 'Infinity' (INF-101)
Stationary above Tipoca City, Kamino
December 15th, 2559, 1736 Hours Standard UNSC Military Time/Calendar

Captain Thomas Lasky

"Roland? Give me an update."

"Still unconscious sir. They're concerned about resuscitating him right now."

The Captain stared hard at Tipoca City from his spot on the Bridge. The ship trembled slightly as the gale-force winds shifted direction.

He nodded to the Chief Officer and signaled that he would be back in an hour or two. The CO saluted and Captain Lasky subconsciously headed for his office.

As soon as he was in, he leaned heavily against the door and furiously massaged his temples.

"Captain, do I need to call your phys- "

"No, Roland, that won't be necessary. I need answers, not a physician. Brief me as soon as Palmer touches down," he ordered.

"Aye." Roland acknowledged before his hologram winked out.

With Roland leaving him alone for the moment, he leaned back as far as he could in his chair and stared at the ceiling.

What a mess.

There were moments he loved being Captain of the Infinity. This was not one of them.

Subjagret Fortis.

Subjugate the strong.

Lasky didn't always feel so cynical when it came to the Office of Naval Intelligence - there was a time when he grudgingly accepted that their work helped keep humanity safe. He trusted the agents on his ship to do their job, but he privately held their superiors back home with distrust.

He was experienced enough dealing with ONI to know that there were few things an Agent truly feared. So when Colonel Navarro, the ONI Commander aboard the ship had recommended that he hold off on forwarding the interrogation findings back to their superiors and call an emergency meeting with him, Lasky knew that, whatever went on down there in that interrogation room, it was serious enough to spook them badly.

"Palmer has just touched down in Hangar Two," Roland reported.

"Thank you, Roland. Direct her to the executive conference room and make sure she understands it's urgent."

"Roger."

Lasky figured that if Plamer took Roland's injunction to heart, she should be in the room in at least seven minutes. So, he started walking there himself.


When he walked inside, several individuals were already seated and waiting for him including Dr. Evie Harrel, Chief Psychiatrist; Ronald Bradford, Chief Medical Officer; and Colonel Moses Navarro seated alongside several other members of the ship's executive leadership.

"Did I miss anybody?" the Captain asked.

"Everyone except Palmer," Roland reported after a moment.

"Actually, I'm right here."

Lasky turned around to see the Spartan towering over him with her helmet removed and saluting.

"Apologies Captain, but you asked for me to get here ASAP,"

"At ease. Thank you for getting here so quickly," he said, motioning for the Spartan Commander to take her seat.

When Lasky took his seat, the lights dimmed allowing for Roland to materialize in the center of the table.

"I'm recording Captain, for your records."

Lasky nodded.

"Before I start asking for answers, Dr. Harrel, Dr. Bradford, what's the latest on Fireteam Shadow?"

Dr. Harrel, a slim woman with raven-black hair softly raised her hand slightly before beginning.

"Uh, well Captain, we ran some tests, and based upon the subject's genetic structure, I cannot recommend the use of either cyclodexione-4 or miso-olanzapine. There's a 17% chance of successful treatment. Half that if we account for serious heart and liver complications.

"What the ****" are you trying to inject them with smoothers for? Those are reserved for the Gamma-III's," Palmer asked, eyes narrowing.

"We...er... thought that the drugs might be able to stabilize their emotional and mental stability." Dr. Harrel explained. Lasky noted the woman's intimidation and made a mental note to address Palmer later.

"Why wasn't this discussed with me?" Palmer demanded.

"Well, Commander, in accordance with Article IX - "

"To **** with protocol," Palmer bristled. "I'm directly responsible for each of the Spartans on board this ship. Do you understand that we still have one of them sitting in intensive care because of what those two did?"

"Actually, Rapier Five is expected to be discharged from the intensive care unit in two hours." Dr. Bradford cut in.

This pacified Palmer for a moment allowing for Lasky to jump in.

"Sarah, I'm going to have to ask you to stand down. Dr. Harrel consulted with me first and I made the call because you were in the middle of running a training op."

The Spartan nodded curtly and assumed a more passive stance.

"Dr. Harrel, are we officially ruling out drug therapies to return them to normal then?" Lasky resumed.

"Yes. There's not much more that I'm willing to experiment with. The lab is working on other therapies. In the meantime, I'm more interested in determining why the leadership of Fireteam Castle seem to be triggers for them."

"I think I might have some answers for you there." Colonel Navarro spoke. His voice was rich and almost disarmingly casual.

He stood up and started pacing the length of the table.

"Captain Lasky, given the unique set of circumstances we are in, I am invoking sub-paragraph VII of Article XVI. For all intents and purposes, this conversation never took place. In fact, right now, according to Roland, I am in my office on the phone back to Sol. I don't need to remind any of you of the penalties associated with breaking confidentiality."

Lasky and the other Officers nodded once, used to this kind of spiel, while the civilians became more tense and serious.

"Before my assignment here, I was assigned to Section Zero." Colonel Navarro began

"What are you talking about? There is no Section Zero." One of Dr. Bradford's aides spoke up, interrupting almost immediately.

"Did Moses say you could speak?" he said rounding on the aide.

The man quickly sank into his chair, his face quickly blanched of all color.

"Section Zero, as you know, is sort of like ONI's internal affairs department. While it may sound hard to imagine, if there was anything going on that it was too sour for ONI's taste, we were given the job of shutting it down, whatever it was - and believe me, there are plenty of things that can make a Spook squirm in his seat."

"Go on," Lasky nodded.

"Several years ago we discovered a program buried deep within Section III that met all sorts of these requirements. It was called Project Lockstone. Misallocated funds were the least criminal part. On the surface, it looked to be another program designed to explore ways to sow division within insurrectionist movements, or even the Covenant, should the opportunity present itself. However, the program got overlooked in light of overwhelming successes with Dr. Catherine Halsey and her Spartan-II program. The director of this project, Admiral Benito Domingo, without oversight, began to push the boundaries of his project for his own personal use."

"What was the overall goal?" Palmer asked.

For once, she didn't attack the subject of Dr. Halsey, which Lasky found to be relieving.

"In short," Navarro said, "the objective of Project Lockstone was to take individuals connected with insurrectionist movements and brainwash them into being "sleeper agents". Then, when presented with visual stimuli, their programming would take over allowing them to sow disorder among their ranks allowing for an external force to come in and destroy them."

"Like Project Nova did during the 20th-century Cold War? Or MKUltra?

"It's possible - " Navarro conceded. " - though Project Nova and MKUltra differ substantially in some areas - that's largely irrelevant. We first caught a whiff of this when an Army corporal attempted assassinating Colonel Urban Holland in 2542. Guy went nuts and had to be killed by his fellow squad members. We ended up writing this one-off initially as an insurrectionist-inspired attack until the doctors examined his brain chemistry during the incident via his neural implant. Everything was normally functional until the moment he saw the Colonel. His brainwaves looked more akin to a rabid animal than anything human - at least that's how I remember how I understood the Doctor's terminology."

"I didn't think much of it until Indigo Teams presented me with the recording from the interrogation. The connections were almost immediately apparent. Neural abnormalities, reaction to visual stimuli, debilitating mental pain, notable psychosis, and unpredictability - normally that recording is supposed to go through a vetting process before it even goes near anyone else, including the Captain, but they made the right call. I suspect there are more people loyal to Osman than to ONI on this ship than I would care for."

"What does Osman have to do with this?" Dr. Harrel asked.

"Because," Colonel Navarr's wry smile disappeared, "Osman was charged by Admiral Parangosky with assisting Section Zero in dismantling Project Lockstone when she was still her lackey. It seems that Osman chose to let some things... slip through, and helped hide them away herself.

A chill ran up Lasky's spine.

"What are you saying?"

He rounded the far end of the table. "Subjugaret fortis? That was the motto of Project Lockstone. Captain, it seems that you've had two sleeper-agents-turned-Spartans on your ship for months now."

Concerned whispers broke out among the civilian contractors on your ship while Palmer and Lasky shared a long and concerned look.

"That explains a lot," Roland said finally.

"It does explain a lot of things." Captain Lasky said slowly echoing the AI.

"You're going to be here for a while." Colonel Navarro stated.

"Yes we are." he trailed off.

"I'm already trying to reach out and get you the files that you need without stirring the hornet's nest back home. It'll take a while, but if you're going to make a decision on these two Spartans, you should at least be informed."

Lasky nodded before he suddenly stood up and clapped his hands together.

"Okay people, what are our questions? Roland, start taking this down, and let's start exploring this."

"Were there any warning signs leading up until now other than what we've previously discussed?" one of Dr. Bradford's aides asked.

"Valid question, Roland, take it down."

"What about the nature of their triggers? Any specifics?" Navarro asked.

"Mark it," Lasky commanded Roland.

"What about whether this conditioning is wearing off or breaking down?" Dr. Harrel asked.

"Got it," Roland informed.

"Here's a question," Lasky interjected, giving a quick apologetic nod to Dr. Harrel. "Two sleeper-agents on my ship, I can deal with. What I don't understand is why those two were driven to attempt to murder another Spartan. They were conditioned to attack Insurrectionist movements, not Spartans."

"That was the original goal," Colonel Navarro interjected, but the success of the Spartan program made many people, specifically Project Directors - bent on taking credit for saving the human race, very unhappy. In this case, we believe the attempt on Colonel Holland's life was more due to a personal grudge more than anything else.

"So, these agents, they were conditioned to attack people Domingo had a vendetta against?"

"Precisely."

"Which leads us back to Dr. Harrel's question." Roland finished.

"But, Osman?" Lasky asked, reeling back. "Osman allowed this to happen? Why would Osman place two time-bombs on our ship without giving us a reason why?" Lasky questioned.

"Hold on now. I said she helped hide them away, not placed them on your ship. I have no evidence of that," Navarro said. "I'll need a lot more evidence to make any sort of case against her."

"And, why is Fireteam Castle, specifically Castle Lead and Two their primary triggers? They're not the Master Chief or any other Spartan-II of note."

Colonel Navarro frowned and typed some commands on his data-pad before a series of images, legal briefs, and court proceedings started populating the display.

"I'm afraid the two already have some history together. I don't have an answer about Osman, but we should proceed very carefully from here."

As Lasky looked, certain things jumped out. A Holo-theater. A shattered Piano. People injured. People dead. Gang activity. Revenge.

"I don't understand, what are we doing looking at a bunch of legal briefs?" Commander Palmer asked.

A series of faces began populating the screen now, obituaries, newspaper articles, a front-page special, advertisements for a special charity concert.

"No way..." he breathed out, slowly rising and inspecting the images for himself.

Before he could get much further, Roland suddenly brightened the room and alarm klaxons started blaring.

"Captain Lasky, we're receiving an emergency transmission from Tipoca City!"

"What?" the Captain asked, snapping his attention away from the images.

"We've been ordered to mobilize and make best speed for... Umbarra?" Roland trailed off.

"Umbarra?" Lasky repeated, frantically trying to recall his Andromedan astrogeography. "Why?"

"Sir, it looks like the planet moved to secede from the Republic in the last 24-hours."

Roland swiped away the images and a map of the Andromeda galaxy quickly filled the screen.

"The Separatists have already moved resources in to help defend the planet. It sounds like their presence could very well compromise the integrity of the Republic's supply lines."

"Any word from the brass?"

"None. I'm already hailing command and asking for instructions."

"Pull our troops out of the city. We'll figure this out once we're underway."

"Aye."

The Captain turned to the rest of the assembled crew.

"This meeting will reconvene once we are underway." Lasky said standing up at once."Roland, I don't know what's going on, but we need more people here discussing this topic. Seal the files. I don't want anyone else taking a look at them. We'll reconvene with the Executive Council in three hours.

He was about to exit but turned back to face Navarro.

"Colonel Navarro? As soon as those files get here, please give Roland full access."

He nodded.

"Commander Palmer, I want the number of Spartans guarding the brig doubled.

"Aye Captain." Palmer nodded. "I'll oversee preparations on the S-Deck and get that duty list drawn up."

"Roland?" he queried.

"More orders for me?"

"Bring the ship up to TAC CON Alpha-three. Begin recalling all assets in Tipoca City. See if you can get F.I.L.S.S. or Freya below to help coordinate the air traffic. I want the ship airtight and prepped for immediate departure. Have Navigation begin jump calculations to Umbarra. I need Engineering to start reactor shakedown sequences five-hours ago."

"Done, done, and done. Anything else?"

Lasky paused.

"We're probably going to have to take a rain-check on Karaoke Night. Inform the crew it's postponed until further notice. If we get the ship underway fast enough, I might be convinced to let it go on as planned."

"Not again," Roland mumbled glumly.


Military Education Complex, Hallway 119-C19, Tipoca City, Kamino
December 15th, 2246 Hours
UNSC Standard Military Time/Calendar

Spartan William Gunther

They were heading back towards the Infinity after their rotation in the combat exercises. Today was day three.

As they had expected, attempting to mesh their forces together cohesively in the middle of battle was difficult. In the last session alone, the Republic Officer, unfamiliar with the capabilities of the Scorpion Tanks, had managed to pin an entire column under heavy cross-fire. It had taken some creative thinking on both sides (and an impressive scorpion flip by Castle Eight), but they had managed to fend off the attack, recover the few remaining tanks, and escort at least three to their "destination". The results were acceptable, but only just.

It was a little better than the UNSC's attempt at directing the Republic forces. Tactics that worked with units the size of a platoon just didn't play out with the Republic and William would be feeling the bruises from an attempt at scaling a cliff that went horribly wrong. The Officer directing William's unit severely underestimated the blast radius of the proton cannons the Separatists would employ to defend critical areas.

As Castle Team marched back to one of the rain-soaked landing pads, they entered into another large room, one that had been converted into an instructional chamber where different units taught a cycling group of Clone Troopers the basics of UNSC weaponry and vehicles. The UNSC had adjusted to firing with lasers almost immediately while the Republic struggled with "slugthrowers". Ballistics was just not a concept that the Clones easily grasped. Whether this was a result of their programming, he didn't know, but it made for some amusing footage on the Infinity's Grapevine account.

He and the other Spartans of Infinity had received priority training on the hardware used by the Republic. Once he had figured out the completely foreign layout, interface, and feel of the controls, everything was just fine. He had to admit that their blasters, especially on their highest power settings, were incredible assets. It was too bad that you couldn't shoot everything on full power without warping the barrel or running out of power. The Republic also seemed to grasp repulsor-lift technology a little better in some cases than some of the Sangheili staples like Ghosts or Wraiths. They could move much faster over level terrain than anything he had seen. William privately gave thanks that the Covenant had never innovated their vehicles to the level of lethality the Republic's hover tanks offered.

A Scorpion Tank gave a loud shriek as the tank moved incredibly awkwardly through an obstacle course. It veered off towards the makeshift barrier and burst through, heading straight for a group of ODST's. The tank ground to a halt, but the ODST's started approaching the Scorpion, clearly angered by the reckless driving.

"What the sam-hill was that all about?" a gruff looking ODST hollered in a heavy Southern accent. The red markings on his armor stood out clearly against the sterile walls and ceiling.

The hatch opened and an ARC trooper (his HUD tagged it as a member of the 501st Legion) clambered quickly out of the vehicle.

"I'm sorry sir, I forgot which pedals were which," he explained quickly. "How do you drive these things?"

"I should ask the same of you! None of your tanks have proper gas and brake pedals!"

William saw the ODST's hands tense on an impressively decorated M90 shotgun and debated on whether he should step in.

"And your guns make little sense. A gun should fire straight. You shouldn't have to think about bullets dropping."

"Now that's why you get yourself a shotgun, perhaps the most admirable and versatile weapon mankind has ever devised! There's nothing your gun can do that a shotgun can't do better."

The ARC Trooper, unsure of what to say, simply stepped off the tank and allowed another Marine to reverse the tank in an immaculately straight line.

"Alright you blue devil, what's your name?" the ODST demanded.

"Fives."

"Well, Fives, what's your ranking?"

"Uh, I'm an ARC Trooper, sir."

The man stopped.

"I see I've overstepped my boundaries... sir."

The ARC looked at him, suddenly confused. "That's quite alright, now if you could just - "

" - drop and give you infinity? On the double!" the ODST said before dropping to the ground and pumping out push-up after push-up.

The rest of his squad started chuckling among themselves while the ARC Trooper stared at the ODST, unsure of how to process this sudden turn of events.

"That's quite unnecessary... sir, I just need to file the incident with your logistics department...that is the procedure, right?

The ODST's chuckled amongst themselves. William stared at the man as he jumped to his feet and pointed towards a different hallway than the one William had just come through.

"Thank you... Sergeant." the ARC said cautiously before hastily leaving.

The ODST's started meandering towards the ranges again and Castle restarted their walk back to Infinity.

"Anyone record that? Never seen an ODST so eager to apologize before." Chelsea asked.

"I don't know whether that was subtle mockery or a sincere apology." Castle Seven shrugged.

"I'm more interested in who he was. That could have ended in a bad case of friendly fire." Asher grumbled.

"Shall I draft a report for you? It'll just need your signature when you step back on board." Freya asked politely.

"No!" the Fireteam chorused.

As the group of six made their way past the impromptu range and further out towards the platforms, William opened a private channel with Asher.

"Yes?" she queried almost instantly.

"Have you heard from Fireteam Rapier at all?"

"Not since we saw them last night at dinner. Why?"

"I'm worried about them."

"Because one of their members is still stuck in intensive care?"

"No ...well, actually yes. Sort of. It's hard enough to have a job where your life is on the line every second.

"How do you feel?"

"What? We're talking about them, not me," he replied.

"William. You're obviously wound up by this. I can tell by the way you're walking. Tell me how you're feeling."

Privately, William wondered if Asher would make a better ONI interrogator than Spartan.

"How do you feel?" she pressed.

"Furious. I keep thinking of what I would have done if I could have been there. I don't understand why Captain Lasky hasn't ejected them out the airlock. Those two have been nothing but bad news to us ever since we came aboard Asher. Spartans are supposed to be united. I keep trying to think of how Mendez or Lieutenant Commander Kurt would react to all of this."

"And do you think Fireteam Rapier feel in any way different?"

"No. I guess not." William conceded.

"William, I feel betrayed and hurt too." Asher's voice tightened. "It sickens me to think that there are other Spartans that would murder their own. Unfortunately, this isn't the first case of Spartans turning against their own."

"Rudolf Schein. Michael Crespo. Ilsa Zane. I'm aware."

"William, the one truth I've learned from being a Spartan is that human beings are complicated. We're not machines that you can disassemble, fix, and then reassemble when something goes wrong. There's a lot of ugliness associated with being human. We fight. We kill. We rape. We steal. We compare and seek to elevate ourselves. There's also great goodness in being human. There's selflessness. There's loyalty. There's humility. There's nobility. There's honor. There's trust. There's love. I think there's an awful lot of evil in humanity the Covenant could have used to justify exterminating us, but there's an awful lot more good. There were many good men and women who died to protect humanity. You and I knew them well."

William said nothing.

"Did you ever meet S-052?"

"Jorge?" Will asked, confused. "I can't say I knew him well, but I was at least aware of him."

"You know, Jorge told me something that Senior Chief Petty Officer Mendez once taught him. I think you'd find it useful too."

Will flashed an acknowledgment light; a signal to continue.

"Mendez told Jorge that a Spartan can't have their own baggage…their own weight. There's just no room. We already carry the weight of all of humanity on our backs. As Spartans, part of our duty is to protect humanity by bearing hard things so that others don't have to. We fight to give others the chance to be human."

"Wise words."

"So, Will, as your second-in-command, I strongly recommend you let it go. We're fighting in an entirely different galaxy against an army of machines. I'd rather spend my time worrying about how we can make the human race safer through our actions here."

He felt tempted to ask Asher just how they were making the human race safer by fighting here, but he refrained.

"Will, do you remember how you felt when you found out about Operation Torpedo?"

The Fireteam Leader slowed his gait for just a moment while stilled images from body-cam footage replayed through his head. He mentally sorted through the images and remembered the pain of each loss.

"Yes," he replied flatly. "I remember."

"Fireteam Rapier is strong too. They're not strangers to loss and pain. If they weren't, they wouldn't be here today."

William fell silent as their march carried them through another assembly hall and only broke the silence when an alarm began to wail.

"What's going on?" Will asked as Republic paused and then began to move with purpose.

"Message from Roland," Freya reported. "Umbarra has seceded from the Republic and has been invaded by the Confederacy. The Infinity has been requested to help repel the invasion. The Captain is ordering a general recall of all assets in preparation for immediate departure. The first Pelican will arrive at landing pad 24-Besh in thirty seconds."

A map appeared on his HUD with a preplanned route a moment later.

Will shoved his thoughts about Fireteam Shadow and Fireteam Rapier to the side. Asher was right. They had a mission to focus on.

"Come on, Fireteam Castle. We've got a bird to catch."


Undisclosed location, Umbral Alley, Level 1313, Coruscant, Galactic Republic

A lone speeder proceeded swiftly with purpose through an abandoned block deep in the heart of Coruscant. The speeder passed by a pair of security fences. The sole passenger, a shadow cloaked in black robes flickered in and out of sight.

Danger! Extreme chemical contamination zone ahead! Minimum Class-9 PPE required! Violators may be prosecuted under martial law! the sign read.

The area ahead was littered with toxic dust that had seeped into the streets and the soil - the result of a narcotics deal gone critically wrong. A daily crew of workers filed in every day to clean up the area and haul away soil and chemical-soaked duracrete.

Under normal circumstances, trespassing past the security fences would be immediately met with a contingent of the Coruscant Shock Troopers decked in protective chemical gear and bristling with weapons who would swiftly apprehend the visitor and turn them around to prevent exposure to the extremely lethal chemicals. The locals of this level of 1313 used to make it a game of getting pass these checkpoints.

That was until the bodies started appearing. Overnight, the cleanup crews disappeared, the security fences showed up, and the clones stood guard. Each one would be savagely mauled and mutilated so badly that Forensic Police could make very little of the bodies left.

The shadow was unconcerned as the speeder sped further into the sector.

The signs were a lie. The clean-up crews were a lie. The fences were a lie.

The bodies weren't.

It was the source of the bodies that drew the Shadow in tonight.

The headlights of the speeder turned a corner darted down an abandoned street, crossed a deactivated pedestrian bridge, and settled into a large plaza, the only place lit with large spotlights.

Almost as soon as the speeder touched down, armored figures in black-clad armor appeared from the shadows with visors that dimly glowed the color of old blood. They relaxed after a moment.

"My Lord." one of them said before kneeling. "We've been expecting you. Director Isard is waiting for you below."

Palpatine nodded once before moving to the center of the circle. Far above, a metal plate moved above and a holographic projector flared to life depicting the illusion of a blasted crater in the ground with oozing green tendrils of gas whipping around.

Palpatine stepped into the center of the plaza onto a lift perfectly recessed into the surrounding plaza. The lift would take him almost a kilometer below ground into one of many secretive facilities that dotted Coruscant.

The floor retracted and Palpatine, surrounded by the four clone shadow troopers, descended into the ground engulfing all of them in total darkness.

As they descended, the Shadow reached out. He could feel the echoes of emotion from the sector's inhabitants.

Anger. Pain. Greed. Hunger. Lust.

The misery beyond gave him new clarity of thought as he descended. He felt a tremor of concern centered around Kamino for a moment and made a mental note to attend to it when he was finished here.

A minute passed before the lift descended through the ceiling of a room and coming to rest on top of a platform. A long room, hewn out of the city structures surrounding it, was lit dimly at regular intervals by white lights.

He could feel the creature's pain. It was subdued, likely unconscious. The rage and anger came like water lapping onto a beach.

"My Lord?"

Palpatine could see Director Armand Isard standing in front of a large reinforced bacta container below him. A dozen other clone shadow troopers stood guard around the room.

As he approached, he noted the E-web trained on the bacta tank door and the walls which were pockmarked with blast marks and a smirk crossed the Chancellor's lips.

So. The Orionid had put up a fight.

The Chancellor descended the stairs and approached a kneeling Isard.

The Director of Republic Intelligence stood after Palpatine beckoned him to rise.

"Report, Director. What news do you have?"

"The mind control collar implantation was a success. No other instances of cognitive dissonance have been observed since we last reported. We are still trying to tap into the subject's armor to reverse engineer a sample, but, for the moment, the technology eludes us. We've completed a spectroscopic analysis of what the Orionids designate as the Type-31 Needle Rifle and the Type-25 Plasma Pistol. The latter carries a curious ability to overcharge and deliver an electromagnetic pulse that can disable any unshielded electronics. It is on par with standard-issue sidearms. Regrettably, the Type-31 uses a crystalline material which is not native to our galaxy. Artificial synthesis of the material has so far proved unstable and remarkably dangerous. The plasma gauntlets are similar to those already active in some Special Forces units."

Palpatine held up a finger and Isard immediately quieted. He approached the bacta tank and peered inside.

"Do you believe the subject is ready for operations?"

"The subject has passed all the benchmark tests you have outlined and exceded baseline results by 80%. Any further training would only further hone his already prodigious skills".

"What of the Mandalorian that accompanied him?" Palpatine inquired.

"Nothing yet. Republic Intelligence is doing what it can. If you believe the subject is ready, perhaps you could assign him as the first target?"

"No." Palpatine shook his head. He looked at the unconscious T'vaoan formerly known as Zek Lhar'. "If he is truly ready, I have a mission for him to complete. Time is of the essence. Wake him immediately."

Palpatine felt a flicker of hesitation in Isard, but the man gestured to a pair of shadow troopers who began to operate a console on the opposite wall. The soldiers tightened their circle and trained their weapons on the tank.

Director Isard retreated a few steps.

Palpatine remained unmoved as the liquid bubbled and drained away, the oxygen hose disconnected, and the tank hissed open.

"Rise," Palpatine commanded.

A moment passed before the T'vaoan's eyes open and then trained their gaze on Palpatine.

"Yes, my Lord." the former Skirmisher said before coming to his feet and stepping before the Chancellor.

"Who are you?" Palpatine asked.

The T'vaoan cocked his eye as if he was trying to remember something. A look of puzzlement crossed his face."

"I do not recall."

Palpatine noticed Hadzuska's voice had adopted a slower, more drawn-out style of speech since he had last seen him.

"Your name is Hadzuska. In the ancient tongue of the Sith, it means assassin.

Hadzuska nodded, accepting this as truth.

"Am I Sith then?"

"No. You are not, but you serve me, the one true Sith. You are T'vaoan. Your people abandoned you to die. When your usefulness to them was expended, you were little more than refuse and discarded."

The nanolaminate armor shifted as if agitated. Hadzuska's fist clenched and his eyes narrowed. Palpatine relished in the anger that surged from within.

"Where are they. I must see revenge done."

"Patience." Palpatine smiled. "You will have your time to revenge yourself upon those that killed you. Before that can happen, there are things that must be done. These are dark times and I have enemies all around me. You will hunt them down and exterminate them leaving no evidence that may be traced back to me."

"I understand."

"Come, Hadzuska. We have much to talk about before your first assignment."

"Who am I to kill?"

"There exists a race of warriors known as the Spartans. They possess supernatural instincts and physical ability. They are elite warriors cocooned inside specialized armor. You will find one, kill them, and bring their armor to me for analysis and study"

"Is this a foe worthy of my caliber?"

"These Spartans are dangerous warriors. If you are to truly have your revenge, you must demonstrate your competence to me as my assassin. If you survive, I will have another mission for you. Come. There is much to talk about and little time before you must go."

A door slid open behind the bacta tank revealing a large room filled with hologram projectors.

"By your will, my Lord."

Palpatine, Director Isard, Hadzuska, and the shadow troopers entered the room one by one.

Palpatine began to cackle. The sound was the last thing that was heard before the door sealed shut behind him.


Thanks for reading. I hope to reward your patience with another chapter soon. I apologize that it took this long to post.

Yours in writing,
theotherpianist