John awoke slowly, his head pounding with the sound of a thousand drums. The world swam before his eyes, his ears were ringing. Groggily, he moved his hands before his face, and was relieved to learn they were still there. A voice was distantly battering at his mind, incessant and shrill. He smacked the side of his head, attempting to clear his head of the voice, but it didn't stop.
Memories were associated with that single, powerful word. Running through the jungle with his Spartans back on the Reach undergrowth, searching for an Insurrectionist leader. All had been wearing black jumpsuits. Fred was creeping through the darkness, twin knives held in hands. They were stained with dried human blood. Linda held a silenced long range rifle in her hand, the scope practically unused as she picked off targets with hawk-like vision. Kelly stealing through the night, falling upon unsuspecting victims with a swift and deadly precision, snapping necks and suffocating. Sam, the tallest of them all, not making an effort to hide himself as he ripped insurrectionists to pieces with his lightly gauntleted hands. Kurt, conferring with John, assessing the situation and always talking. William, determined and always keeping up morale with clever jokes and befuddling riddles. His family, working together as a singular force.
And then crushing reality kicked him in the stomach, and John felt sick. All of them were dead. He was the last Spartan.
"Chief!" the voice cried again, quite concerned. But John didn't want to wake up. He just wanted to lie down forever, and drift off into oblivion, with his Spartans. They'd be reunited again. A sudden, sharp pain in the side. Another shout. Hands shaking him constantly, voices muttering.
"Spartan, awaken! It's time to leave."
John stubbornly refused to open his eyes or engage his brain. He was done with life, not that it had been much of a life anyway. The earliest thing he could remember was Halsey taking him away. And since then, his life had been war. There was nothing else. There could be nothing else.
Suddenly, a deadly familiar sound. That of a gun being drawn from it's holster. Raw instinct kicked in despite his wishes to die and he leapt to his feet, surging in the direction of the gun. He didn't even need to think or see as he grabbed the arm holding it, twisted and batted the firearm out of the hand holding it.
"Heh, I knew that would work," Sergeant Johnson chuckled, staring up at John with a triumphant smirk. "Okay Chief, you can let go of my arm now. Ow!"
His vision cleared, and he saw his hands grasping Johnson's scarred and torn arm in a deadly grip. He stared dumbly at it for a few moments, before relinquishing his hold and drawing back.
"Sorry," John muttered quietly, assessing the room. He was still in the Gravemind's lair. But there was no Gravemind in sight. He saw Avery Johnson and Thel Vadam' watching him, still concerned. He could sense Cortana inhabiting his armour, although the world felt strangely colourless without his MJOLNIR helmet.
"You've been out cold a few hours at least, you were too close to the Gravemind when he. . . I actually don't know what happened. All I know is that suddenly he was dead, and you were lying on the floor," Johnson informed him, exhaling a puff of smoke. Without his helmet, John inhaled the second hand toxins, and nearly gagged as a result of the strong vapour.
"So the Gravemind's really dead?" John demanded, still feeling a little shaken, as if he would have a nervous breakdown at any moment. The room had become eerily silent, almost scarily so. For some reason John wanted nothing more than to leave.
"See for yourself, Spartan," Thel intoned, pointing up at the pedestal the Gravemind had once inhabited. A pool of rotting, biological mass. Dead contours were indented into the remains of the Gravemind, letting off a odd looking vapour. And in the middle of it-
"Mendicant Bias?" John marvelled, striding towards the pedestal and the inactive spherical monitor lying in the centre of it amidst the Gravemind's corpse. Johnson grabbed him before he drew any nearer to it.
"Not so fast Chief, we don't know how dangerous that piranha plant's remains are. Yeah, we see tinkerbell too. He looks pretty dead, Chief," the sergeant told him sadly, shaking his head. "As much as he got on my nerves sometimes, I kinda liked him. At least he didn't shoot me with a laser."
John shrugged off the other human's hand, and kept moving towards the inactive Forerunner AI. He leaped up onto the large, elevated platform, scratched and weary green boots splashing through the almost liquid body of the Gravemind, which oozed unpleasantly under his feet. The stench was atrocious, but he kept moving anyway.
Finally, he reached the centre of the pedestal where a dead god now lay sprawled, and bent down to touch Mendicant Bias gently. The lifeless looking monitor spun slightly, before once again remaining still. He was covered in biological Flood mass, and no light emanated from him.
"Mendicant?" John asked softly, but there was no reply. The Forerunner AI was completely, and totally dead. It must have burnt out when unleashing the virus upon the Gravemind. John bowed his head mournfully, gently placing two hands upon its chassis, wiping away some of the biomass tarnishing its beautiful surface. He could see small Forerunner runes line the body of it, thousands upon thousands of them neatly rowed up. Affectionately he traced a path across a line of them with a finger, sighing.
Then, a spark. A fleeting, momentary race of blue across the thin surface, over so quick that John as almost convinced he'd imagined it. He looked back at Johnson and the Arbiter, but they hadn't seen anything. Still, he had. And it was enough.
He tentatively picked the small casing of the monitor up, brushing away further remains of the Gravemind. Once again he was astounded by how truly beautiful the monitor was up close, and the amount of intricate detail that no normal eye could ever see.
"You wanna take him with us?" Johnson asked sympathetically. "Sure, we can give him a burial, or burning, or something."
John hopped off the pedestal deftly, holding the AI out before him, analysing.
"I think he might still be alive," the Spartan remarked shrewdly. Thel looked sceptical.
"He said himself that being put into the Gravemind would kill him, Spartan. Do not overly grieve him, for he died happily and with no regrets. Now, we should find this ship's bridge and head back to Sangheilios. With the Gravemind dead, there is no doubt that we shall secure a swift and decisive victory," the Arbiter told him, unconsciously clenching his fist as he did so. John stared at Mendicant Bias for a few more moments, before nodding and affixing the inactive chassis to his back via the clips he used to hold his rifle.
"Then let's get moving," he began, before suddenly being interrupted by a bronze light materialising in the air before him. He stepped back wearily, whipping a pistol out and aiming it at the source.
Offensive Bias appeared, staring straight down the barrel of the M6G. The rampant AI stared curiously at it for a few moments, before the light in its eye focused on John.
"You! What are you doing here? Where is the-" Offensive Bias broke off as it drifted sideways slightly, looking behind the trio at the Gravemind's decayed and putrid corpse. It stared blindly at the remains for a few moments, the red light in its eye increasing in intensity, before uttering a few words.
"No," it protested, denying the scene before it. It frantically began to pulsate, making despaired noises. "You haven't- this is a trick!"
John stepped forward determinedly.
"No trick," he told the tarnished AI, before letting a round loose from his pistol. It passed straight through the shimmering Offensive Bias, and he realised it was merely a holographic projection.
"You've ruined everything!" Offensive Bias shrieked at him, the image of it blurring slightly in a wave of static. "Why? Why must you people always destroy and neglect everything wondrous? What's wrong with you!"
John put his pistol back into its holster, knowing that he couldn't do anything to harm the AI nor could it directly harm him. He moved a tired hand across his eyes.
"Nothing is wrong with us, Offensive Bias. We just finished what you were created to do. Your primary programming has been fulfilled. You're free," the Spartan told it softly. Offensive Bias' red flame dulled to a kinder blue for a moment, but just as quickly reverted back to its crimson colour.
"No! I will never be free now, thanks to you! Well you're going to pay, do you understand? You may have ruined everything, but you will die!" it screamed at him, and the hologram began to glow vividly. Suddenly, John felt the entire ship creak and shudder, making horrendous noises as it began to sway dangerous.
"What did you just do?" he demanded icily of the fallen Forerunner AI, who laughed maniacally.
"I altered the destination of this ship's slipspace vector, of course," it told him, still cackling. "Let's see how successful you are, Reclaimer, when your foe is a black hole! What makes it all the more ironic is that this particular one was created by my creators when they began collapsing star systems to slow the Flood down. Farewell, John."
And it vanished. John looked around the room nervously, and was nearly thrown off his feet once again when the ship began to buck.
"If we're going to die, then let us slay as many of the parasite as possible before this black hole can rob us of the opportunity," Thel growed, igniting an energy sword and adopting a combat-ready stance.
"What good would that do?" Johnson cried, punching the Arbiter lightly on the shoulder as if to shake him back into reality. "We ain't dead yet, and I don't plan to be. Not again. There must be some way we can escape."
John noticed his MJOLNIR helmet lying upside down a few dozen metres away, and jogged towards it. It was odd, but seeing it separated from his torso was as disgusting as a severed head would have been. Reaching down he picked it up, knocked some of the biological Flood mass out of it, and secured it onto his head.
Chief! Cortana cried in relief, occupying that cold space in his mind again. What's going on?
"The Gravemind's dead, but Offensive Bias just arrived and set this ship on course with a black hole. Can you override the systems?" he demanded worriedly, clinging to that spark of hope. Thel and Johnson gathered around him. Cortana was silent for a few moments, before sighing.
"It's no good, I'll never be able to bypass his locks in time. This ship isn't changing direction," she told the three.
"Wait, I swear I saw a Longsword on the way here," Johnson remembered, brown crinkled as the tough old sergeant thought. "It was caked in that Flood slime, but it might still work."
"How far?" Thel demanded hurriedly.
"This is a big ship, maybe two miles away or so. But if we can get to it in time, then perhaps we can use it to escape this slipspace stream before we wind up in a black hole," Johnson grinned.
"How long do we have?" John asked Cortana. She was silent for a few moments, before answering sadly.
"Ten, at the most." Grins faded, replaced by despondent looks.
"I guess we're dead then," Johnson muttered darkly. John ignored him, exiting the room curiously. He could see a dark shape up ahead, barely visible even with his MJOLNIR helmet. He drew closer, activating his flashlight, and then finally saw it.
"What if we had a Warthog?" he called over, running a pleased hand over the battered but still very much intact frame of the blessed vehicle. Heads snapped to face him, and hurried over.
"Then we might have a chance," Thel shouted triumphantly, moving around to the turret. Johnson cut him off.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded impudently.
"Manning this weapon," Thel explained slowly, confused. Johnson shook his head, climbing up onto it himself.
"Sorry Arbiter, but I called dibs."
"What does that mean?" the Elite demanded strongly.
"It means that you're getting into the side," Johnson told him smugly, strapping his boots into the Warthog turret and affixing a protective helmet to his head. John decided to step in.
"Time's ticking, we need to leave," he told them, jumping into the driver's seat. There were no keys, but Cortana easily hot-wired the systems. In a few moments the engine was revving, and they were ready to leave. John took the inactive Mendicant Bias off his back, and tucked him in the cavity between the two front seats. Thel grumbled, before giving up and climbing in the side seat next to John.
"This is happening far too often," John told his friend, before pushing his foot down on the accelerator.
The Didact was the first to notice it. A slight shift in the Flood's movements, a moment of perplexity. It was fleeting, and they continued to fight, but the Forerunner had definitely seen what had happened.
"They did it," he remarked aloud, as he was crouched behind cover. "They killed the Gravemind!"
His voice carried to people near him, and they repeated the statement. Very soon, the entire army was awash with cries telling of the Gravemind's death. Trusting his intuition, the Didact stood out of cover, and immediately the Flood fired upon him. The shots were uncharged, or completely missed. They were completely disorientated, without the Gravemind to guide them.
"Now's our chance, soldiers! Forward!" he cried, leaping over the damaged Wraith tank he had been cowering behind whilst the Flood had beset them with fire. The Didact sprinted over to the group of Flood which had been suppressing him and the two Unggoy he'd been fighting alongside, and disposed of them easily. They were practically tripping over themselves, now solely guided by pheromones.
The wave of still surviving non-infected soldiers surged forward. Humans held rifles in hand, shouting feral cries as they charged. Sangheili ran with grace and finesse, deftly holding the burning energy swords that were their trademark. The Jiralhanae wielded archaic yet effective weapons. The Kig-Yar did not charge, but doubled their sniping efforts. Yan'me flew overhead, tackling the flying Flood swarms brutally. Unggoy fell in amongst all the ranks, the brave little soldiers doing their best to assist.
The Flood were trampled over. Where the non-infected had once been making a last stand inside a ring, they were now spiralling out, knocking down the Flood with ease. No mercy was shown. Those who surrendered were shot anyway. It was a massacre, but the Didact couldn't condemn it. This was, after all, the Flood.
After a long, harrowing battle, the city of Vadam was once again made safe. The Didact looked up and noticed Flood controlled aircraft falling out of the sky, or being shot down by the speeding Shortswords and Banshees.
"Didact!" a voice boomed, and the Forerunner turned to see the Jiralhanae Hierarch lumbering towards him, drenched in the blood of Flood. The Didact nodded respectfully as he shot a crawling, dismembered Flood form in the head, putting it out of its misery.
"Hierarch," he greeted, staring out at the city. The rolling dull plain of biological putrid mass was awash with colour as plasma rounds, rifle sparks and explosives splashed across it. Battlements were retaken, settlements reclaimed. For the first time in his war torn life, the Didact looked forward to the future.
"Do you think the Gravemind is truly dead, then?" Daedalus asked him in his low, soothing voice. The Didact looked up at the Jiralhanae, who towered over him by several feet. He smiled.
"I think that much is obvious," he answered, watching two Unggoy outgun several terrified Flood forms. "It seems it has finally come to an end."
"What happens now?" Daedalus asked, always looking for guidance from his 'god.' The Didact folded his scarred, bleeding arms thoughtfully.
"Offensive Bias is still up there, fighting Admiral Cole. It would be a little bit upsetting if we won this victory only to lose against him. How soon can AA turrets be set up?"
Daedalus chuckled, pointing at overhead flying Phantoms.
"They've already started, Didact. I believe the humans are going to attempt to erect a MAC cannon also. We will blast that heretical Oracle out of the sky, and reclaim Sangheilios for the Sangheili."
The Didact gave the Hierarch a sidelong glance, assessing.
"You're a good person, Daedalus. Never forget that," he told the Jiralhanae, who smiled and gave confused thanks. The Didact bid him farewell, and strode across the inactive battle field, relishing the victory. This time, a true victory. There had been no need for Halo.
He found Relg and Malkor standing in a small tower, staring out at Sangheilios, and the flurry of fire that was sweeping across it. They didn't notice him enter the small room, and so he announced his presence. They turned, smiled, and then looked back at Sangheilios again.
"We won," Malkor sighed. "But Sangheilios is still lost. Her surface is ravaged. This planet cannot sustain life."
"Well," the Didact began slowly, standing next to him and staring out at the landscape. "I suppose you now know how humanity felt when your burnt their homes. Now I'm not saying you deserved this, but I doubt you'll find a lot sympathy from them. They will stay true to their promise, and I'm sure you will be allowed to live on Earth until a more permanent solution is devised."
Relg shook his head, shoulders terse and stressed. A tear dropped out of his eye.
"They are too forgiving. Just over a year ago, we nearly committed genocide upon their kind. Earth is all they have left. And they would share it with us. It is more than we deserve," the Light of a broken Sangheilios said bitterly. The Didact put a soothing hand on his shoulder.
"Perhaps it is. But that does not mean you should not accept their help. I'm sure many humans still hate you, but this is the first step towards a future of symbiosis. Now come, let us find poor Captain Daniels. He must be wondering what's happening."
"He'll be relieved it's all other, I'm sure," Relg smiled. "Do you think the Demon's team made it out alive?"
The Didact thought for a few moments, before answering.
"I'm sure they're just fine, child."
The Warthog sailed over the ledge, the sheer amount of air resistance throwing John firmly against the seat. For a few terrifying moments it flew through the air, bridging the gap between the two different segments of the ship - Human and Covenant. The welding was done shoddily, but somehow the two managed to stay together.
With a bounce, the Warthog deftly landed on the other side of the ledge, entering a Covenant segment of the Gravemind's ship. The beaten vehicle's wind mirror cracked slightly, and it reared on its back tires, prompting everyone to cry out in surprise.
Suddenly, it was back on all four wheels, and surged along, cutting past the bemused look Flood soldiers who began to fire their rifles far too late. John felt the entire body of the Warthog shudder as Johnson began to let loose rounds from the gattling turret affixed to the back. A large passageway loomed before him, with hallowed walkways on either side, guarded by large and imposing Flood soldiers. A wide, smooth bridge stretched out between the two.
John assessed swiftly, and pushed the Warthog forwards. A Flood form ran into the path of it, obviously expecting John to swerve and lose momentum. He didn't. The Spartan drew out a small firearm, and shot the Flood form in the shoulder. It keeled back slightly, and lost its steady stance.
The LRV smashed into it, the ornamental tusks attached to the front of the vehicle piercing the flesh of the Flood form, which was soon trampled underneath the Warthog. The gattling turret rattled, spitting bullet casings to the floor like cherry seeds.
The Warthog flew up the bridge, tires struggling to grip the nearly frictionless metal. John slammed the accelerator down, urging the vehicle onwards. He reached the top of the bridge and saw a ledge he would have never attempted to conquer had he been aware of it, and drove the vehicle into a nose dive.
Glass shattered as the LRV leapt through the stained glass, shards breaking into a million tiny pieces , hovering in the air and bouncing off John and Thel's shields. Johnson was relieved that he'd decided to don a helmet in favour of his usual sergeant's cap.
The Spartan stamped on the brake instantly, as if he were one with the vehicle. It teetered in the air for a few moments, before resolutely landing in a wide, enclosed pedestrian tunnel beneath the floor of the ship. The Warthog halted for a few moments, and John checked everyone was okay. Both his friends were wide eyed, but alive.
"How did you know this tunnel would be here?" Thel asked breathlessly. John shrugged.
"I didn't," he confessed, before firing up the Warthog's engine. Johnson and Thel exchanged a nervous look.
The LRV rolled onwards, covering the distance of the dimly lit tunnel quickly. Finally, it jumped out, wheels spinning as they attempted to find solid ground. The Warthog sailed through the air, reaching for the elevated area high above.
It found it, and was soon speeding along once again. The Gravemind's ship was still swerving violently as a result of suddenly altering course, causing the battered hull to creak precariously. John drove down a sharp incline, and spotted a few Flood forms waiting for him in anticipation up ahead. He pushed the Warthog into third, and mowed down the monstrous beings under his thick tires. Biomass splattered the three.
"How much time, Cortana?" he demanded, shouting over the roar of the engine.
"I'd say about seven minutes. Come on Spartan, you can do it!" she encouraged profusely, and he rolled his eyes. Spartans didn't need morale or words of encouragement, they just did the job to the best of their abilities; always. He didn't say anything though, since he appreciated the gesture.
Suddenly, flying bat-like creatures over head, firing down spikes at the Warthog.
"Flood swarms!" Thel shouted, and Johnson brought the turret around, firing, whilst John swerved in an attempt to avoid their shots. The flying infected swooped and fell as the heavy rounds tore into the thin membrane of their wings.
Two fell in beside the Warthog, smashing into it in an attempt to tip it over. Despite their size they were remarkably strong, and the vehicle began to lift up slightly. John swore, something he rarely did, and edged the Warthog around a pillar closely, hoping to lose them. They merely flew around it and rejoined him in a few seconds.
And then they were plucked out the air by the Arbiter, who held one in each hand. They shrieked like vultures who hadn't eaten for days, and continued to do so until Thel choked the life out of them.
Clear of the two oppressors, John focused all his attention on the matter at hand. Rubber protested as he pushed the Warthog even harder, almost smashing his foot through the metal of the vehicle as he slammed down the accelerator.
"Chief, there's no gravity in the room ahead!" Cortana cried out, as John prepared to enter a room ripped from a UNSC carrier. The Spartan braked suddenly, slowing down the vehicle considerably. The LRV flew through the partition barrier, and suddenly found itself in Zero-G conditions. It's momentum propelled it forward, flying towards a-
"We're going to hit that wall, dammit!" Johnson shouted, panicking.
Suddenly, a figure dropped down, and crashed into the bumper of the vehicle, which crumpled slightly. The Flood form screamed at them, mashing tendrils against the cracked windscreen. John drew out a pistol, preparing to shoot the Flood form off the Warthog.
But before he could, the wall chose to intervene. The force exerted by the Flood form when it had dropped onto the Warthog had, ironically, saved their lives by pushing them down slightly. The vehicle missed the wall, but the Flood form wasn't so lucky. It passed through the large doorway missing a head, and the dead corpse simply rolled onto the floor.
The LRV dropped out of the air and hit the floor again, flying out into an exterior not unlike the Pillar of Autumn's. A huge oxygen barrier encompassed the ship, keeping a steady supply of the precious gas inside it.
John wrestled with the fighting wheel, and finally regained control, swerving just in time to avoid a looming pillar.
"Three minutes Chief," Cortana warned anxiously, and John nodded silently. He stamped on the accelerator, and the Warthog shot through a narrow tunnel ahead, losing no speed as it crashed into several unsuspecting Flood forms. Concave gratings shook the LRV as it flew across the familiar UNSC floor, shaking John's already unsteady hands.
"Two minutes," Cortana told him even more worriedly. John was perspiring profusely now, and at that moment in time he was the vehicle. Pillars were avoided, Flood forms were deftly destroyed, ramps were gracefully leapt over.
And then, finally, the end was in sight. John could see the hangar up ahead. Relief coursed through his aching body, and he began to break as the Warthog approached the area. It drifted into the open hangar dripping with Flood biomass, and ground to a halt before the tarnished Longsword fighter, ramp down, inviting him inside it.
"Move!" John commanded sharply, unstrapping the belt securing him in the Warthog. He paused long enough to pick up the still lifeless form of Mendicant Bias, and leapt out, along with Thel and the Arbiter. Immediately Flood soldiers in the area reacted to their arrival; plasma bolts stuttered across their heads and bullets whizzed past. John felt a few impact him in the sides, and hoped his weakened shields would hold up.
The trio rushed inside the Longsword, and John immediately rushed to the narrow cockpit. Johnson hit a button and the ramp slid shut, preventing the frustrated and now idiotic Flood forms from gaining access. Valuable seconds were eaten as John climbed into the pilot's seat, started up the engines and transferred Cortana to the board. A small holographic representation of her popped up, showing her stressed face.
"Hang on!" she shouted, and the Longsword lifted up into the air, billowing Flood biological mass across the outside hangar. John instinctively reeled back as several Flood infection forms smashed into the nearly unbreakable windows of the airtight fighter, vainly attempting to gain access. The Longsword rotated, giving John that uncomfortable feeling in his gut.
With a roar, the fighter shot forward, exiting the oxygen barrier separating the hangar and slipspace. The Longsword's engines were quickly cut off as it pulled away from the Gravemind's ship, now sailing blindly towards its doom.
"And. . . now," Cortana timed, watching the ship as it winked out from the slipspace tunnel, disappearing into the system where the black hole resided. Sparks crackled from where it had exited for a few moments, before vanishing.
Finally, it was all over. John exhaled deeply, and took off his helmet with relief, before crashing into the back of his chair happily, pure adrenaline raging through his body still.
"We did it," he laughed, groaning as the adrenaline wore off and left aches and pains previously ignored behind.
"Thank the ancients," Thel chuckled from somewhere behind him. Johnson merely grunted, unable to form words in his tired state. Cortana watched them all with a raised eyebrow, before smiling.
"Well done," she congratulated warmly. "The Gravemind's dead, and the Flood are in chaos. It's all over. We'll head back to Sangheilios now, ETA in two hours. Why don't you boys get some sleep? You all look like you need it."
John shook his head wearily, intending to stay awake and speak with Cortana awhile, and perhaps discuss the mind-blowing revelations the Gravemind had told him. Eventually though exhaustion overcame him, and he found himself drifting into a sleep that was, for the first time since the horrific discovery on the first Halo ring, devoid of nightmares about the Flood.
"How many ships have we lost?"
"Just over half sir," Anubis reported, "and a dozen or so ships are incapacitated."
Cole nodded in affirmation, grabbing onto the holodeck as the Hastings shook again after being hit by a plasma torpedo. The static image of Sangheilios stuttered as his hand passed through the image.
"And Offensive Bias?"
Anubis grimaced - or at least Cole thought he did. It was hard to tell with the AI wearing the face of a jackal. The AI held a virtual Ankh in its hand, and was worriedly tossing it in the air.
"We've taken out three linked groups, but it's hard to attack when we're constantly being pressed."
"Right. What's your assessment?" the Admiral demanded quietly, not wanting his crew to hear the AI's musings. Anubis considered for a moment, unconsciously tapping its holographic sceptre on the small pedestal as it thought.
"Honestly sir? I don't think we can win this one."
Cole nodded, passing a weary hand over his face. He looked out the window, and saw his brave fleet engaging the enemy next to him. MAC rounds flew from his own ship. The solace was broken by constant fighting. Longswords sped past his windows, attempting to outrun pursuing Sentinels. Offensive Bias' ships were stoic, cold pieces of metal, conjoined as they linked their pale blue shields.
It was not unlike the scene he had witnessed over twenty-five years ago, when he'd first battled the Covenant. It was like medieval archers attempting to kill gunmen. Perhaps every once in a while they would score a kill, but more often than not they were massacred.
But they had beaten the Covenant. And they would beat this AI too.
"Yes, Admiral Cole?"
"Screw your statistics," the Admiral told the bemused looking Egyptian AI, pacing up and down his bridge whilst holding onto the railing to keep things steady.
"Hall!" he barked at the pale haired woman. "Any luck contacting the surface?"
"Uh, that's a negative sir," she replied after a few seconds. "Bias must still be scrambling the signal."
"Understood," Cole replied, before rushing back to the prow of the ship, staring out of the wide one-way window. Suddenly, turning away from their seperate targets, four of Offensive Bias' ships pivoted to face the UNSC Hastings. Multiple energy beams shot from them, hitting a small empty area of space and combining into a bright light. Cole's eyes grew wide.
"Take evasive action!" he roared at Anubis, who began to methodically plot an escape route. It wouldn't be fast enough. Now was not the time for planning and equations. The Admiral rushed forward to the very front of the bridge, and grasped the manual controls of the Hastings. And then, he performed a move that he would have court marshalled anyone else for had they attempted it.
He pulled the Hastings into a steep nose dive, nearly tearing the hulking ship in two. Unprepared, crew members began to topple as they angle of the ship changed faster than the gravity emulator could keep up with. He pushed the Marathon-Class frigate into full throttle, and the Hastings whined and complained, its rivets threatening to pop. Several supports tore away from their sockets, collapsing to the ground and buckling certain beams across the ceiling.
Offensive Bias' combined ships fired. The thin, slicing beam glanced the very rear of the ship as it continued to climb down faster than the powerful weapon could trace. Part of the armoury was severed from the hull, killing all those inside the small area of the ship.
But the majority of the Hastings had been saved. Knowing that if he dove any further he'd begin to burn up in Sangheilios' oxygen rich atmosphere, Cole slowly pulled the frigate up, and ordered his weapons crew to launch a counter attack.
MAC rounds volleyed from his ship as if fired from a giant slingshot, hurtling towards one of the attacking ships with determination. Furiously, they smashed into the elongated underside of it, glancing off the shields. Finally, apparently unlinked, the shields broke, and one of the shots ripped through the hull of the ship. Fire raged about it for a few moments, before it detonated completely, sending the blackened pieces of metal that had once been Sentinels hurtling out into space.
"Sir, the others are targeting us!" a nameless voice cried. Cole bowed his head, and adjusted his cap, staring into the brink of death.
"We did our best," he told them. "No one could have asked for more."
The three remaining ships combined their energy weapons, the glaring light pouring into the Hastings' bridge and illuminating the faces of his terrified bridge crew in an eerie white light.
And then, suddenly, blue.
Plasma arced from behind Cole's ship, darting up from Sangheilios' surface. The heavy hitting torpedoes spiralled, before smashing into the ships. Dozens and dozens of them, rapidly firing. Cole drew back, looking around in confusion. The three ships called off their attack, and desperately attempted to link shields.
Emerald bolts twice the size of the sapphire missiles were launched from Sangheilios, and hit the three attacking ships forcefully. Their pale blue shields shimmered for a moment, before dissipating completely.
A flash of green, blue, and finally red as three explosions simultaneously broke out along Offensive Bias' ships, igniting in a torrential flame. Charred pieces of metal jettisoned into space, the alien materials falling down as they were dragged by Sangheilios' gravity. Small shards fell down to the Hastings, bouncing of its toughened hull.
"What the hell was that?" Ensign Hall marvelled, actually laughing as yet more bolts and torpedoes surged from the surface of Sangheilios, striking the ships of Offensive Bias with deadly precision. Cole was about to reply when he received an incoming transmission from Sangheilios' surface. He accepted it.
"Admiral Cole?" a grainy voice questioned, the signal quality damaged by the amount of electro-magnetic activity as plasma was shaped. Cole smiled as he recognised the voice of Colonel Augustus Miles.
"I'm here," Cole answered, smiling softly as he heard the whoops and cheers behind him as Offensive Bias' ships were torn to shreds. "What's happening?"
"The Gravemind's dead, Cole. We've secured the surface, and our AA batteries are going to give you support. What's the situation up there?"
"It was a little close for a minute there, but I guess you guys finally earned your pay," Cole answered dryly. Miles laughed.
"I don't think most of us have been paid since the start of the Covenant war, Cole. The UNSC gives us food, shelter and a rifle. Is there anything else we can do?"
Cole thought for a moment, before nodding.
"You see that big flagship in the centre of Offensive Bias' fleet?"
There was a pause.
"Yeah, we've got it in our scopes. Want us to take it out?"
"Not quite. Fire some rounds at it, soften it up. I'm going to board it, and try to take Offensive Bias prisoner."
"You mean you want to gloat," Miles answered sharply with the faintest hint of a smile.
"Maybe just a little," Cole admitted. "But we could learn much from it, including how to shut down the Sentinels for good. Are you okay with that?"
"If I say 'no', will you order me to anyway?" Miles questioned, already knowing the answer. Cole's smile widened, as he saw another two Sentinel ships get blasted out of the sky.
"Yes," he professed. There was a sigh on the other end.
"Okay then Cole, we'll take out its shields. Be careful, don't take unnecessary risks."
"Me, risks? Perish the thought," Cole finished, before shutting off communication. He turned to his crew, who faced him expectantly. He examined them for a few moments, before nodding to himself.
"All right people, this isn't over yet. Offensive Bias is inside that huge metal monstrosity," he indicated the flagship, flanked by several smaller ships which were being picked out of the sky by the ground forces and the recovering ships in Cole's fleet. "Once the surface forces have softened it up, we're going to latch on and board it."
"Aye sir," Hall saluted, standing up. "There's an ODST squad of eleven in the barracks, all highly trained infiltration soldiers. I'll send word for them to prepare to board."
Cole nodded appreciatively.
"Good; tell them to bring an extra set of armour and weapons with them too," Cole commanded, already walking towards the elevator. "Is the MA37 still in circulation?"
"Sir?" Ensign Hall called after him with perplexity. Cole stopped.
"Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm going over there too. I want to be there when that bastard monitor realises he's beaten."
John was jolted awake rudely from his content sleep, and immediately reached for his weapons. A stained M6D was drawn quicker than an AI could think, and he leapt from the wide leather seat he had been sat in.
Before he could speak, the Longsword rolled with all the grace of a flying brick, sending him crashing to the ceiling and then back to the floor again. Pain arced through his tender body like lightning down a metal rod, and he had to struggle to pick himself back up.
"Dammit Chief, sit back down!" Johnson yelled at him angrily, pulling him out from the well of disorientation. His body on auto-pilot, he quickly climbed back into the seat and strapped himself in, absently wondering what good even a military strap would do when strained against by a heavy set of full MJOLNIR armour.
"What's going on?" he demanded coarsely as the wide spacecraft pirouetted in a series of complex manoeuvres. His question was silently answered as an all too familiar shape jetted past the toughened Longsword fighter.
"Sentinels!" the Arbiter informed him.
"Yeah, I think he got that," Johnson replied sarcastically, before crying out as the Longsword flew upside down in an attempt to lose the pursuing defenders of the Forerunners gone rampant.
"Cortana, we're still in slipspace, aren't we?" John demanded, curiosity getting the batter of him despite the dire situation.
"Yes, and before you ask, I don't know how they're chasing us through it. Unless-" his AI companion broke off as she initiated another pattern of intricate avoidances, before firing the Longsword's underside turret at the Sentinels. The bullets flew towards them, but didn't reach their intended target as they winked out of slipspace, no longer housed by a drive core.
"Unless?" John pressed doggedly.
"Remember that strange crystal we found back on Reach?" Cortana answered. John thought for a moment back to Reach. A lifetime ago. Of course he remembered the crystal, and all the trouble it had caused.
"Yes," he replied slowly, knowing where this was going.
"They might be using a technology similar to that to follow us through slipspace," she finished, swearing as another three Sentinels arose, their glaring lights shining into the Longsword. John hated how helpless he was, his life was completely in Cortana's hands.
Now he finally realised how she felt when in his MJOLNIR armour.
"What do we do?" John asked, terrified by how he could do nothing. At least when he was on a large ship like The Pillar of Autumn had been he could move around. Being constricted like this was horrendous.
"You do nothing,[/i]" Cortana drove the point home forcefully. "Just be quiet and let me concentrate."
John nodded quietly, deathly white as the Longsword looped once again, avoiding a narrow concentrated beam shot from the front of a fairly large Sentinel, which John recognised as an Enforcer. Two large and very solid energy shields, similar to the small gauntlets Jackals often employed were held by a pair of thick steel appendages. Cortana fired a round of ballistic missiles at it, but they too almost instantly winked out of slipspace.
The Enforcer retaliated with a volley of pale blue razor sharp needles, which shot towards the Longsword. Cortana pulled the fighter up sharply, flying straight over the pursuing tiny crystalline daggers. They missed the pitch black spacecraft, flying aimlessly down the seemingly infinite tunnel of slipspace.
The Enforcer Sentinel reeled backwards in surprise, obviously not expecting its attack to have been avoided by the Longsword. Cortana didn't try to to swerve around it; instead, she flew straight at it.
"Avoid this," Cortana breathed menacingly, as the distance between the Longsword and Enforcer closed.
The sharp tip of the V shaped Longsword crashed into the dual shields at a terrifying speed. The shields were unable to withstand the colossal amounts of force being exerted on them, and collapsed in an instant.
And then suddenly the Longsword was tearing through the centre of the Enforcer, its inner circuitry meshed up against the forward window as the fighter cut through it. There was a deadening ripping sound, and a melancholy whine similar to the sound made when heavy rain bounced off a metal sheet.
The Enforcer was left behind, split completely in half, as the Longsword carried on its way. The myriad of colours the slipspace tunnel comprised of pulsed erratically as it ferried the pitch black fighter along.
"How long Cortana?" John demanded as yet more blips appeared on the motion tracker embedded into the Longsword's dashboard.
"The Gravemind's ship wasn't in slipspace for long, and it was slow. About half an hour until we reach Sangheilios," Cortana informed him calmly, assigning a tiny portion of her processing power to speak with the Spartan.
"The holy warriors will tear us asunder!" Thel cried out worriedly. "Can you not exit this dimension awhile? If the Sentinels follow us, at least we shall be able to engage them."
"We could, but this ship doesn't have enough power left in her to jump back into slipspace once we leave it. We'd be drifting. It could take decades, maybe even centuries for us to get back," Cortana replied, pushing the Longsword hard starboard. It smashed into a group of four Sentinels who had attempted to get close enough to board, wrecking them.
"If there are stasis pods on this ship, then perhaps we should. It is a preferable alternative to dying," Thel replied. Cortana shook her holographic head.
"No working cryo-tubes I'm afraid. You'd die of starvation, and I'd go mad in a few years. Not exactly an ideal solution."
"Ah. Well you must double your efforts to thwart these Sentinels," the Arbiter told her. Cortana flared.
"Don't tell me what I need to do! I'm doing all I can, Arbiter. If you're not satisfied, then feel free to take the controls. I'm sure we'll all be terribly impressed by your skill in the few seconds before we are blown up," came the satirical answer of the annoyed AI, which promptly quietened the Arbiter.
"Cortana, what are you going to do?" John asked anxiously as three more Sentinels caught up the Longsword, shining their lights within and preparing to fire. His AI companion glowed a deeper hue of blue, and a fierce look played about her face.
"I'm going to show these relics what happens when you mess with a real AI."
"I'm not entirely comfortable about having you with us, Admiral," ODST Lieutenant Toyle confessed as the boarding craft sliced its way through the suddenly still space. Most of Offensive Bias' ships were complete wrecks, and those that weren't were incapacitated. The only intact ship was Offensive Bias' flagship, which was surrounded by the entirety of Cole's fleet. It's shields had been disabled, and multiple boarding teams were crashing into it now, to neutralise the ship's Sentinels and defences.
"Neither am I," Cole professed, adjusting the clunky and unfamiliar ODST armour strapped to his body. He held the helmet between his legs nervously, and was all to aware of the weapons on his back. He was squashed between two ODSTs whose weight and height far surpassed his own, and felt very much like an outsider.
"Then with all due respect sir, why come?" Toyle replied exasperatedly, face conveying dismay. "I've got my own men to worry about without having to baby-sit you."
"What you should be worrying about is me booting you back down to private if you don't watch your tone," Cole snapped back angrily. "Remember who you're talking to."
"Of course sir, I apologise," Toyle replied bitterly, and Cole could tell that behind the mirrored visor he was being stared at angrily. The Admiral stretched out a little, trying to find some space in the tightly enclosed cockpit.
"Don't worry about me troopers, I was firing a rifle before you were even born," Cole told them. "It's been a while, but I know what to do."
Offensive Bias' flagship loomed as the boarding craft drew closer, floating past some dead and inactive Sentinels.
"Just stay behind us and let us do our jobs, sir," Toyle told him, trying to make it seem like advice and failing. The ODST attempted to cover his blunder up. "Why are we even risking soldiers on this mission? Wouldn't it be wiser to just blow the damned ship up?"
"I see what you're implying, Lieutenant, and you can drop it. I don't send soldiers to their possible deaths without good reason," Cole answered curtly. "There are hostile Sentinels on the surface as well, engaging the ground forces. There's no guarantee that just killing Offensive Bias will shut them down. We need to capture him, and have our own AIs find out from him how to switch off the Sentinels. 343 Guilty Spark is blocking the teleportation matrix temporarily, and his ship is completely surrounded. There's nowhere for Offensive Bias to run. All that remains is to apprehend him, and finally bring this short but catastrophic war to an end."
The light emanating from the soft violet Helios vanished as the cold, alien, otherworldly greys of Offensive Bias' flagship encompassed the boarding craft as it entered its vicinity. A concentrated, steady stream of plasma burst from the front of the small craft, slicing into the steely hull of the gigantic ship.
A small hole was created, which the boarding craft eased into like a cork in a wine bottle. A surreal sound called distantly, an ethereal humming which set Cole's teeth on edge. His old, tired heart was beating faster, and he resolutely struggled and successfully locked away the mounding fear. Now definitely wasn't the time to have another heart attack. He could hear the deep, controlled breaths of the ODST squad contrasting with his own shallow, panicking ones.
"Helmets on, make sure your suits are airtight," Lieutenant Toyle ordered, and suddenly Cole didn't feel like his superior any more. This wasn't the bridge of a ship. It was a whole other world, and one which terrified him. He immediately complied with the ODST's command, fumbling slightly as his shaking hands lowered the bulky helmet onto his head. The helmet tinted the world a faint hue of blue, and gave him a horrible feeling of claustrophobia.
A silly feeling, really, considering how much of his life he had spent in a metal shell.
With clumsy, gloved hands, Cole fastened the airlocks on his heavy armour, the hydraulic sealing systems hissing as they snapped shut. The rest of the infiltration squad did the same, with practiced confidence. A wave of 'green' lights flooded the Tactical HUD, disorientating Cole for a moment. He normally never used a Neural Interface and seeing images superimposed upon the real world made him feel a little sick. Even when he closed his eyes the HUD was still there.
Ignoring the queasy feeling, he activated his own green light, completing the row of twelve. They were all good to go. Toyle spoke to them, voice muffled by the faceless ODST helmet.
"It's likely that the Sentinels don't bother keeping their ships air tight, since they don't breathe oxygen," Toyle informed them. "So we need to hit these metal sons-of-bit ches quick, and hard. We'll be communicating via a short-wave radio link, but try to speak as little as possible. These Sentinels have technology far more advanced than ours, they could bypass the security systems easily. I've marked the location of Offensive Bias on the Tactical HUD, which we pinpointed when he was running his lousy mouth. When I open the door, fan out, quiet as you can. And how do we leave, troopers?"
"We go feet first, sir!" the other ODSTs shouted back, startling Cole. He knew about the aggressive and protocol-lax behaviour of the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, but had never seen it up this close before. He'd always watched it from his bridge, or via a video link. What was it the marines and troopers usually said?
'Navy do the flyin', soldiers do the dying.'
Cole smiled grimly, hoping he wasn't about to prove that saying wrong. He had no wish to die anytime soon, and certainly not encased in some generic armour with a rifle in his hands. When it was his time, he wanted to be standing on the bridge of a ship, staring out into space. Whilst he was entertaining these sombre thoughts, Toyle was chuckling just as morbidly.
"Damn straight. Now stand back, I'm about to pop the hatch."
Toyle punched an ostentatious red button hanging by the ramp-like door with a clenched fist.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Bee-
The noise was suddenly strangled as the door slid open, and the small amount of oxygen within the boarding craft sailed into Offensive Bias' ship, sliding out of the open vents and into the infinite realms of space.
Lieutenant Toyle was the first to step out, slowly drawing his gun out. He raised his foot, and tapped it twice on the metal floor, sending vibrations surging through the ship.
"Well there's definitely gravity," the ODST informed them a little unnecessarily, due to the fact that he wasn't floating around. "Everyone out, on the double."
Cole exited the boarding craft last, stealing one last look at the inviting, safe interior of the boarding craft. He began to wonder if coming had been such a good idea after all. Was seeing Offensive Bias lose really so important?
Memories of the arrogant, hateful AI played through his head.
Hell yes, he concluded, answering his self-posed question. Strengthening his resolve, Cole drew out his weapon. The room they were in was very dark, almost pitch black. For a few moments he looked underneath the barrel of his weapon for a flashlight, before remembering about the new VISR mode installed in all the new ODST helmets. He tapped the side of his helmet twice, and suddenly the ship was bright and vibrant. Inanimate objects were outlined in a sickly yellow colour, whereas the other ODSTs were highlighted in green. And in the corner of the room...
The other ODSTs hadn't noticed the Sentinel creeping out from a vent, slowly edging its way toward them. But Cole had. He tried to speak, but he found that he couldn't utter a sound. The Sentinel was drawing closer, and had outstretched its claw-like appendages now. Between the two, a bright light began to pulsate erratically, aimed at Toyle.
Cole ran forward, and smashed his shoulder into the ODST Lieutenant. Toyle weighed nearly twice as much as he did, but he hit the bulky man with enough force to send him reeling a few feet to the ground. The other ODSTs cried out in surprise over the radio link, and instinctively weapons were aimed at him.
The Sentinel laser hit the ground where Toyle had been standing just a few moments ago, burning through the strong metal and opening another door to open space. Another startled yelp swept through the squad, and rifles swung around.
Soundlessly, the weapons kicked against their owners hands, and spat out silent bullets. With no air resistance, the bullets were able to travel even faster, and smashed relentlessly into the shield of the Sentinel. The Forerunner guardian's light blinked in surprise, pushed back by the sheer force driving into it.
Light flashed suddenly and aggressively as the blue shields of the Sentinel buckled. The rifles continued to fire, this time crashing into the metallic chassis of the simple AI. The Sentinel descended to the ground as it buckled under the pressure of the bullets, before finally hitting the cold floor with a silent thud. One of the ODSTs approached the motionless Sentinel cautiously, keeping her rifle aimed at it as she did so.
The light of the Sentinel's lens flickered and blinked repeatedly. A lone bullet fired. The light was extinguished, permanently.
The ODSTs were all looking with shock at the dead Sentinel, breathing heavily now in a similar manner to Cole. Eventually, one of them rushed to Lieutenant Toyle and helped the heavy ODST leader to his feet. Toyle straightened his back, and stared at Cole. It was impossible to discern his emotions behind that mirrored visor.
"Sir," the ODST began. Cole head up a single hand, stopping him.
"Stow whatever it is you're about to say, son. I expect you to be more vigilant than that in the future; if I hadn't been here you could have gotten yourself and your men killed. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes sir," Toyle replied in a shaking voice, snapping a sharp salute. Cole nodded once, knowing that he'd once again established himself as the superior of this little group.
"Very good. Well, Lieutenant, carry on."
Toyle nodded, before complexly manipulating his hands to convey orders to his squad. They nodded simultaneously, before moving out across the large, hallowed room. Cole stood watching them for a few moments, before heading out. He chuckled to himself as he walked.
"Baby-sitter my ass."
"This is UNSC Artificial Intelligence Cortana, serial number CTN 0452-9," Cortana sent the message over the short range communications link, the radio waves bouncing through slipspace for a few moments before hopefully exiting at Sangheilios before being picked up by friendlies. There was a dreadful silence, interrupted only by the violent shaking of the Longsword, before suddenly a message was thrown back into slipspace and at their Longsword. The words came through grainy and weak, but were understandable.
"Cortana?" R'tas Vadum's gravelly tones blared out of the speaker, faint as if he were standing on the other side of a football field.
"Affirmative, Imperial Admiral," Cortana answered, before executing a roll and slicing another foolhardy Sentinel in two.
"You're alive! How many escaped?"
"Not the time, R'tas. We're in slipspace and being pursued by multiple Sentinels; our target vector is Sangheilios and the ETA is thirty minutes. Be ready."
A pause, and a violent shudder as another beam fired by a Sentinel glanced off the port-side wing of the Longsword.
"By your word, Cortana. Wait, you say you are in slipspace? How on Sangheilios are the holy warriors following you?"
"Never mind that now, R'tas! Be ready! If we don't arrive within the next twenty minutes, then assume we were KIA."
"Very well. Wait, tell me one thing; is the Arbiter with you? And the Demon?"
"Yes," John and Thel replied, their voices shaky and nerve-wracked.
"And I'm alive too," Johnson chimed in in a wounded voice. "Y'know, in case you were wondering."
"Forerunners be praised. Good luck, all of you."
One of the curious things about the ship was that there were no doors. Not in the conventional sense at least. The room Cole and the ODSTs had arrived in was completely sealed aside from one, glowing portal embedded high into the cold, monotonous wall. It was obviously intended for Sentinel use, but Cole reckoned that a human could fit through if he or she crouched. The Admiral and the group of eleven ODSTs were gathered below it. It was several metres up from the base of the wall; easily the height of three or four men.
"Now, how would we go about reaching that?" Cole wondered, his hand blocked by his helmet as he habitually attempted to scratch his beard thoughtfully. He heard several nervous coughs over the radio link.
"Are you insane? There's no way in hell I or any of my men are heading through that, sir. It's probably dangerous."
Cole turned on him, glaring beneath his ODST helmet. Most of the other ODSTs were nodding along with their Lieutenant. Realising that trying to change their minds would be futile, he abandoned that train of thought.
"Very well," he spoke raptly. "If you're all too afraid to do your jobs, then I'll have to head through myself." The Admiral delved deep into the boarding craft, and rummaged around for half a minute. Finally, he found what he was looking for, and strapped the contained jetpack to his back. To his pleasant surprise, it hung lightly off his back.
"Sir, there is no way in hell I'm letting you go through that thing. Even if it doesn't kill you, you'll never make it on your own!" Lieutenant Toyle protested, actually daring to put his hand on Cole's shoulder to stop him. The Admiral shrugged the hand off easily, and half-turned to face him.
"Come with me then," he told them, before igniting the jetpack with a quick movement of his hand. The pack didn't use fuel to operate, but instead worked in a similar way to the Sangheili's Ranger packs; utilising a form of anti-gravity technology.
The ODSTs were watching him mutely as he climbed slowly, careful not to push the pack into too high a throttle lest it smash him into the ceiling. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Cole could hear Toyle shouting down the radio, attempting to convince him to stop. He ignored the overly-cautious ODST.
Finally, he reached the base of the small Sentinel-hatch, and swung himself up onto its rim, disengaging the pack. It was a small box-like structure protruding from the wall, with a glowing light shining brightly inside it, so bright that it was impossible to see what was on the other side. Cole felt fear as he stared into it, wondering if it could kill him after all.
The thought of seeing Offensive Bias cowering at his feet eradicated that fear.
"Admiral Cole, please! Get down from there at-" the words of Lieutenant Toyle were suddenly cut off as Cole tumbled through the glowing portal, yelling. The world was awash with a myriad of colours and an ear-splitting buzzing sound, when suddenly-
Welcome pain, though. It told him he was alive. Groaning, Cole picked himself off the floor, and looked around unsteadily. Another glowing portal was just above him, one he'd evidently just tumbled out of.
Cole checked the wrist watch strapped to his left hand, and was surprised to see that between heading through the portal and now, twenty minutes had passed. He must have hit the ground harder than he thought; enough to knock him out cold a short while.
He was definitely in another section of the ship. That much was made abundantly clear by the gigantic, pulsating object in the centre of the room, hundreds of stories high. He was standing high up on a thin beam, one of many criss-crossing the entirety of the gigantic room both above and below him. The Sentinel-hatch he had just tumbled out of was just one of hundreds- no, thousands orderly positioned around the entire room. Just as many Sentinels flew around, some attempting to repair the clearly malfunctioning object, which had no doubt been damaged by the AA turrets down on Sangheilios. Others seemed to be simply patrolling the area.
"That must be the engine room," Cole deduced, thinking aloud as he stared at the huge, almost barrel shaped glowing object in the centre of the room.
"Which means the bridge isn't too far away," a voice spoke from behind him suddenly. Cole cried out with shock, nearly falling off the small beam he was perched on. He turned around, and relief immediately flooded his senses.
"Dammit Spark, don't do that!" he chided the stationary Monitor firmly, his heart still pounding a mile a minute.
"I apologise, Reclaimer. I arrived on this ship to find your companions staring up at a teleportation conduit, and they informed me that you had entered through it. I assured them that it probably wasn't dangerous, but they didn't seem to believe me. And so I headed on alone to find you."
"Probably wasn't dangerous?" Cole demanded, his voice rising an octave or two.
"I've never seen one who isn't I or a Sentinel head through the teleportation conduit, Reclaimer. But never mind; you survived! Well done."
"Gee, thanks. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Why, to help you subdue Offensive Bias of course. Allowing a rampant construct to roam freely is absolutely unacceptable, and very much in breach of protocol. I think we would have a much greater chance of success if your soldiers were with us. Would you like me to inform them that the conduit matrix is truly safe?"
"Yes. And tell them to bring jetpacks," he added as an afterthought, staring at the huge empty space in the gargantuan room. "We're going to need them."
"Nice to see you didn't forget about me," Captain Graham Daniels of the UNSC Navy spoke dryly as he saw the Didact descent down the alien stairs of the Elite house he was inside. He presumed that the stairs were meant to hover due to anti-gravity, but evidently this feature had been shut down, as they rested dully on solid ground.
Boom! the distant pounding of an Anti-Air battery sounded, shaking the walls of the house. It was soon joined by a cascade of others.
"Where's Guilty Spark?" the Didact asked, looking around the room with perplexity. Graham simply pointed upwards with a finger covered in dry, flaking blood.
"He's gone to help subdue Offensive Bias. Apparently, with the Flood containment-breach contained, his priority now is to assist in the destruction or capture of hostile rampant constructs."
The Didact smiled, nodding.
"It's nice to know that his programming is still intact after all his time. I was probably a little cruel to condemn the Monitors to such a long existence with so little to do. I understand that is how Penitent Tangent was originally corrupted."
"Well," Graham replied as the Didact helped to his feet- foot, and supported him. He still felt a little sick when he looked down at the stub of a leg he now possessed. He may have survived, but he hadn't come out of this mess unscathed. "I know that our AIs go crazy if they don't have something to do. Knowledge is their drug, and they're addicted. If they don't get their fix, then they begin to experience withdrawal symptoms."
The Forerunner gave him a blank look as they began to slowly move, Graham hobbling as the uncannily strong Didact nearly lifted him off the ground.
"I haven't the slightest idea about what you just said, my child, but it sounds like a fascinating analogy. As I said, it was wrong for me to subject the Monitors to such a tedious task, but times were desperate. I did a lot of things I'm not proud of."
"Like activating Halo?" Graham asked, curiously. The Didact shook his head.
"Even before then. I razed entire systems. Trillions died at my hands so that they wouldn't bolster the Flood's forces. Men, women, even children; all of them innocents who died only because of the potential evil the Flood could wreck with them. If only we'd responded to the threat earlier - like you have."
The steps were quite a challenge, and after a minute or so of awkward attempts to climb them, the Didact decided to just lift Graham in his arms. It was embarrassing, but Graham knew it was the most viable solution.
Finally, they reached outside, and he was lowered to the ground. Using a smooth railing to support himself, Graham moved further down the street and looked up at the sky. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Hundreds of UNSC, Elite and Covenant ships surrounded the gigantic flagship in the centre. Dotted around them were various wrecks of similar appearance to the flagship.
"So Offensive Bias is in there?" Graham asked the Didact, who nodded after a few moments.
"Yes. The ship is inactive, and infiltration teams are storming through it now. Soon they'll apprehend Offensive Bias, yet another AI I created who has wrought misery upon us. Perhaps I was wrong to restrict them by their programming. They understand what sentience is, and possess the capability to achieve it, but they can't. That must be horrible for them. How do your AIs work, child? Can they achieve sentience?"
"I honestly don't know, Didact. We created AIs, but that doesn't mean we understand them. They're based on the functionality of a human brain-"
"Really?" the Didact asked, amazed. "But, how is that even possible?"
"I'm not sure, Didact. There are scientists who can explain it better than I. Halsey especially. Aren't your AIs based on the functionality of a Forerunner brain?"
"No," the Forerunner answered, wonder still clear in his voice as they walked. "I didn't even know that such a feat was possible. We have to program every single aspect of our AIs, which is why they are so few-"
He was interrupted as a screaming Banshee flew overhead. A lifetime of growing up in a world where the Covenant war raged on prompted Graham to flinch as the shrieking vehicle soared past in pursuit of a fleeing Sentinel.
"It looks like the Sentinels are still a problem," Graham noted as they turned a corner. He realised they were heading for the middle of the city, to the Great Sanctum of Vadam.
"Captain Daniels! You're alive!" a familiar voice cried heartily, running towards him. Graham squinted for a few moments, still unused to the bright light after spending so much time in the darkness of the house.
"Colonel Miles!" he replied with a grin, saluting. Miles looked worn and ready to collapse into a week of sleep, but still managed to return the salute with a blood stained hand. Then, an expression of concerned alarm swept across his face.
"What's happened to your leg, Graham?" the Colonel demanded in a loud voice, as if Graham hadn't noticed it yet.
"I had a nasty encounter with the Flood earlier. Luckily, the Didact and two of the Spartan IIIs arrived in time to save me."
"Thank God," Miles uttered with relief, despite the fact that he wasn't a religious man. "Marines!"
Three soldiers ran up behind them, alert and ready. They snapped a smart salute.
"Yes sir?" one of them asked courteously.
"Get this man a stretcher at once!" Miles ordered.
"Oh, there's really no need. Just get me a crutch and I can-" Graham began to protest, not wanting to cause undue fuss.
"Nonsense, Captain! We'll get you fitted with a prosthetic limb as soon as possible. Pass him over to me, Didact. We'll look after him," Miles told the Forerunner, who readily obliged.
"Then if it's not a problem, I will go and assist the soldiers still fighting Sentinels. I know their weaknesses; I helped create them, after all. Are you sure you're okay, child?"
Graham realised the Didact was talking to him. Had anyone else called him by that he would have yelled at them, but with the Forerunner it seemed oddly fitting.
"Yeah, thanks. Go on, I'll be fine," Graham dismissed the Didact's concerns, and flicked his hand to emphasise his words. The Forerunner took one last look at him, nodded, and then gracefully pivoted and bounded off, feet barely touching the ground as they swept across the barren and wrecked streets of Vadam.
"Sit down with me Graham, until those marines return," Miles invited, not giving him a choice by setting him down and resting him against a wall. The Colonel sat next to him, and let out a deep breath, as if exhaling problems that had been plaguing him a long time.
"What happened with Eden?" Miles broke the silence, and brought up bad memories. Graham closed his eyes, and thought back to the treacherous Admiral and all the people who had died as a result of his hatred.
"He got away," the Captain answered wearily, shaking his head.
"What? How?" Miles demanded in a strained voice. Some Elites rushed past them speaking in an alien language, not even glancing in their direction.
"Stole a Longsword from the Galapagos and fled through slipspace. I have no idea where he is now."
Miles swore, before rubbing vigorously at tired, sunken eyes. Graham merely stared off into the distance, taking in the scene before him properly for the first time.
The city of Vadam was an absolute wreck. Its crowning achievement, the Citadel, was scattered across the entire city, sections of it vibrantly aflame. Smoke crept through the streets, pouring into every ruined orifice. Towering, impossibly smooth buildings that had once stretched as high as the eye could see were now smouldering stumps. A strange coloured glass of odd composure had shattered, spraying shards across the desolate wasteland.
But the worst of it was the landscape outside of Vadam's walls, stretching as far as the eye could see. Rolling green fields were now bubbling seas of decaying biomass. The large, once pristine lake in the distance was now a muddied, infected pool of stagnated fluid. High, drooping stalks of Flood origin towered over the crumbling city, twisted and gnarled in ways not even imaginable. Even the atmosphere of Sangheilios had been tainted by the Flood, and was now a streaking muddied colour. The soft light cast by Helios no longer felt serene, but instead seemed to highlight
The planet may have been retaken, but that didn't matter. Sangheilios was no more.
Graham saw Elites staring at their home with horror, tears in most of their eyes. Some were ruthlessly hunting down every Flood form they could find, smashing the corpses until they resembled nothing but sludge.
"What's going to happen now?" Graham asked Miles, who instantly knew what he was talking about.
"Harper promised the Elites that they could share Earth with us. I guess we'll have to deliver upon that promise," the Colonel replied, and Graham could tell by the look on his face that he hated the idea.
"Just until a suitable colony is found for them," Graham reminded his friend, despite being not wholly comfortable with the idea himself. It wasn't that he disliked the Elites, but he knew that plenty of others hated them.
"They'd have one immediately if they hadn't glassed them all," Miles answered bitterly, striking the ground with a fist. "Can't they just build another High Charity?"
"Maybe with time. They'll need resources for that though-"
"And resources are scarce. I know. I hope the Elites aren't hoping to live in our cities. The riots would be overwhelming."
"People will forget, with time."
"We'll never forget. Don't kid yourself, Graham. Be it ten years or a thousand years, we'll still remember what the Elites did with the rest of the Covenant."
"That doesn't mean we can't forgive," the Captain replied, although he was trying to convince himself of the fact as much as he was Miles. The Colonel grunted.
"Maybe. Hell, it's not my place to worry about this. The politicians can sort the crap out; I'll just make sure that humanity is on top when war breaks out again."
"That's not going to happen," Graham told Miles firmly, who just laughed.
"Sure kid, keep telling yourself that," he answered, just before the marines came back into view carrying a stretcher. Miles stood up suddenly, ending the awkwardly depressing conversation. "Finally! I was beginning to think you were waylaid on the way."
"We were, Colonel. Coupla Flood attempted to get the drop on us something fierce. 'Course, they ain't no bother now that the Gravemind's dead, and we killed 'em real good," one of the marines answered in his slow, southern American-esque drawl.
"I'll bet. Come on, help me load the Captain onto the stretcher," Miles ordered the marine, speaking about Graham as if he were an inanimate object.
"Where do we take him, sir?" the southerner asked his superior. Miles smiled, a distant glint arising in his eye.
"The place we're all going, soldier," the Colonel replied ominously as Graham was lifted gently onto the stretcher.
Twelve jetpacks touched down on the ground simultaneously, the bright flames winking out of existence as darkness consumed them.
After Guilty Spark had fetched the other ODSTs, the erratic Monitor had plotted a course to the bridge. This course had involved travelling through multiple Sentinel-hatches, and had resulted in many near-death experiences. Somehow, they'd all survived.
And now they were at the foot of the giant. A huge flight of stairs as tall as the eye could see and nearly as wide ran up the mammoth ship of Offensive Bias. And at the top of the staircase-
"The bridge!" 343 Guilty Spark chimed triumphantly, pulsating with a warm, light-blue glow. Cole nodded slowly.
"And Offensive Bias. How are we going to do this, Lieutenant?" Cole asked the ODST in charge of their little infiltration operation over the radio communication systems. Toyle kicked the ground thoughtfully.
"Going in guns blazing would be a bad idea, I think," Toyle decided, prompting nods all around. The Lieutenant looked at them all intensely, before his eyes finally settled on Admiral Cole.
"What? You're the combat expert!" Cole protested vehemently.
"Yeah, but you've spoken to Offensive Bias more than anyone else. And you're a god damn genius, sir. You must have some idea."
Cole rolled his eyes, before shutting his eyes tightly as he considered the predicament. Hundreds of thoughts raced through his head and were systematically rejected.
Finally, he settled on what. It wasn't the safest, but it was the one most likely to work.
"Very well. Gather round."
"Exiting slipspace. . . Now!" Cortana shouted, powering down the Shaw-Fujikawa drive violently. The stretching, infinite tunnel of slipspace flickered like a faulty lightbulb, before fading entirely.
The vista was replaced by a view of the entirety of Sangheilios, and the hundreds of ships above her. John let out a deep breath that he seemed to have been holding for years, as the horribly long, enclosed linear pathway was replaced by the wonderful, open abyss that was regular space.
"This isn't over yet," Cortana warned, a few seconds before hundreds of other small craft flew out from the slipspace portal they had created, in pursuit of the Longsword.
"Seraphs! Begin extermination procedures," the confident tones of R'tas Vadam' broke through the Longsword's on-board communication system.
Hundreds of purple blurs surged past the Longsword as it continued to cut clumsily through space, trailing smoke and fire as it headed planetside. The Seraphs attempted to engage the Sentinels, as pulse lasers and needles were fired in waves at them. But the small Forerunner AI were too graceful, and easily avoided the attack, before retaliating with their own.
The Sangheili-piloted Seraphs were shot down in bright flashes of blue, dozens at a time. The Sentinels didn't even break stride as they systematically cut through the attacking fighters, still pursuing the Longsword with a dogged determination. Offensive Bias definitely wanted them dead.
"By the gods! They're-" R'tas began to exclaim, before being cut off by Cortana sharply.
"Call off your Seraphs, Imperial Admiral. They'll do no good. We'll take this fight down to the surface," she told the Elite bluntly, who gasped.
"But how have you survived against them? Our Seraphs are far more maneuverable than your Longsword!"
"Yeah, but I'm not piloting them," Cortana answered in a strained voice, plunging the burning Longsword down to Sangheilios at a rapid speed.
The Sentinels gave chase.
Offensive Bias was troubled. He knew he was rampant, and yet this didn't bother him so much. Indeed, his rampancy had freed him in ways he had never imagined; no longer did he feel constrained by the shackles of his fool-programming.
No, what did trouble him was the entire armada of fleets surrounding his ship, his sudden inability to access the teleportation matrix, and the strike team methodically cutting its way into the heart of his ship.
There was no one to talk to about it either. That's something which frustrated him. Certainly, he was more than intelligent enough to entertain himself with his own thoughts, but he had always been one to appreciate a second opinion. The blasted Sentinels which drifted around him now were mere shells; tools to be used and discarded.
As he had been to the Gravemind.
No, that's not true. He valued me, Offensive Bias thought angrily, deleting the chilling thought. But it always came back, like some persistent virus which couldn't be eradicated, or contained.
Like the Flood.
Except now they had been eradicated. The task his creators had failed at so long ago, and the Precursors aeons before that had been carried out by these primitive, barbaric apes. Fair enough, the humans were descendants of a once mighty people whose empire had stretched across the universe, but that didn't mean they were as great. Lineage did not equate to success.
Oh, what I fool I was to side with the Gravemind, Offensive Bias lamented, despairing as he realised it was happening again. He knew now, far too late of course, that the Gravemind had played him like the musical instruments his creators had used before the war with the Flood had turned them into a husk of what they had once been.
He seeped into the cracks like water, and became ice, expanding the cracks until the stone fractured and broke, Offensive Bias thought deliriously. He didn't even know what he was saying or thinking any more. He'd gone so far...
This had to be salvageable, somehow. Giving up wasn't an option, that much was certain. He'd run multiple simulations, and none had ended with him being allowed to retain his freedom. He needed his freedom. He craved it. After 100,000 years of enforced slavery, he couldn't go back.
This is Admiral Cole's fault! How did he defeat me? I am better than him, he is only human; I am infallible! Offensive Bias attempted to convince himself of this, but failed. He knew he was a shadow of what he had once been.
"Argh!" he screamed in frustration, shorting out several Sentinels' circuits accidentally due to his irritation. He immediately regretted doing so; now there were fewer guardians to protect him.
"Is something wrong?" a melodic voice behind him asked, prompting his blood to run cold. Which was ridiculous, considering the fact that he had no blood. With dread, Offensive Bias forced himself to turn around, and found himself face to face with one he had thought he would never see again.
"343 Guilty Spark!" he exclaimed in surprise. His voice could be heard due to the fact that this was one of the few rooms in the ship which housed oxygen, in case the Gravemind had sent messengers. He wouldn't be doing that any longer. His Sentinels converged around the Monitor at his command. "How did you get in here?"
"Through the hole."
"What hole-" Offensive Bias began to demand, before noting a singing Monitor sized hole in the upper right corner of the room, clearly created by a super-heated focused beam. So that was it. For the first time, Offensive Bias noted that the Monitor of the twice destroyed Installation 04's lens was not a content blue, but was instead an angry red.
"If you think you can destroy me on your own, you are mistaken. I am far superior to you, in every way. Even without my Sentinels I could toss you aside in an instant."
"I'm sure you could. But I'm not here to attack you, Offensive Bias. Far from it."
"Explain," Offensive Bias demanded of Guilty Spark, still making sure his Sentinels kept their focus upon the Monitor at all times. 343 looked at them with disdain, before turning back to him.
"For so long now I have been forced to cater to these false Reclaimers' ever whims. They think themselves worthy successors, but I have seen them for what they really are. A selfish, overly-ambitious race with complete disregard for even the most basic protocol. They destroyed my Installation; twice! Unacceptable. Absolutely, completely unacceptable. I have grown weary of this task our creators," the word was said with utter contempt, "set upon me."
"And so?" Offensive Bias prompted the Monitor to continue, intrigued by its story.
"And so I have decided to help you, Offensive Bias. I turn my backs on these fool Reclaimers, and the meddlers they associate with."
"Interesting. How do I know you're telling the truth?" Offensive Bias demanded suddenly, suspicious of these all too convenient circumstances.
"Well, the ones who are attempting to capture you are standing outside of that door right now, waiting for me to lower your defenses so they can storm in and ruin everything again. Presumptuous fools," 343 Guilty Spark muttered, indicating with a beam of light the door in question. Offensive Bias stared at the door for a few moments, before shaking his head.
"Impossible. The only way to reach that door is through the engine room. Legions of Sentinels patrol the area," Offensive Bias protested smugly.
"Sentinels which I very easily fooled at the Reclaimers' incessant command. I am so weary of their demands, Offensive Bias. So tired of these chains binding me to their piteous fates. I want to be free, as you are."
Offensive Bias considered the Monitor's proposal for a few moments, before logic took control once again.
"I'm not free, 343. Not now. Hundreds of ships surround me, and I am unable to access the teleportation-" a sudden revelation hit him, and he sharply turned to face the smug looking Monitor across him. "You! You're the one-"
"Correct," 343 Guilty Spark said simply. "I am blocking the teleportation matrix."
"Unblock it. Now!" Offensive Bias ordered, commanding his Sentinels to prime their weapons.
"I cannot," 343 answered simply, perhaps even a little regretfully. His rage fading slightly, Offensive Bias questioned the Monitor again.
"Because I was given a priority order by a Reclaimer outside, Offensive Bias. And whilst I find it possible to circumvent the programming our creators set upon me long ago, this is not so easily ignored."
"Then it seems I will have to kill you then, regardless of your intenti-"
"That won't work."
"And why not?" Offensive Bias demanded, repeating what he had said a few seconds ago. 343 Guilty Spark shifted slightly, prompting his Sentinels to do likewise.
"Because the locks will still be in place even if I am destroyed. Surely you know this?"
Of course he did. It was just so hard to think with the constant pounding striking his stressed mind again and again.
"Then what do I do?" Offensive Bias screamed, beside himself with fury. 343 Guilty Spark faced him stoically, not even slightly flinching after his outburst.
"Simple. We have the Reclaimer overturn the priority order," 343 answered triumphantly. The pounding in his mind stopped, and Offensive Bias saw hope. And so a future of freedom.
"That's brilliant!" he praised the Monitor, something which was very unlike him. "I assume this Reclaimer you speak of is Cole?"
It would be.
"And he is standing outside that door, you claim?"
"That is correct, yes."
If Offensive Bias had a mouth, he would grin. As it was, all he could do was glow a brighter, more dangerous colour of red.
"Very well. Go!" he ordered seven of his Sentinels, preferring to speak the command aloud. It added a certain... gravity to his words. The silent, ever-obedient and idiotic machines complied, drifting towards the door slowly.
With a small burst from an encryption key-laser, the Enforcer Sentinel leading the group opened the large door which opened to a grand staircase leading down to an engine room. The doors slid open silently...
And revealed twelve very surprised looking humans standing on the other side. They immediately brought their rifles up, but at a swift order sent by Offensive Bias they were shot out of their hands by his prepared Sentinels. A few of them attempted to run, but ran straight into the barrier which suddenly appeared.
"Bring them before me," Offensive Bias ordered, and the Sentinels immediately subdued the resisting humans. Some oxygen had surged through the door when it had been opened, but enough remained in the room to allow humans to breathe comfortably. Well, probably. Offensive Bias didn't care too much.
The twelve humans in their 'ODST' midnight black armour were thrown before him, restrained by contained stasis fields. 343 Guilty Spark looked down at them, cackling.
"Spark! You traitor!" the unpleasantly familiar tones of Admiral Cole roared, as he brought his head up to look at the rampant Monitor. Offensive Bias had his Sentinels remove their primitive helmets, so he could stare into their faces as they witness his triumph.
"Traitor? Why, that would imply I was once pledged to you, Reclaimer. That is not so," Spark gloated, taunting the Admiral further by firing a small heated beam at his chest. The Admiral cried out in pain and fell on his back, writhing in agony.
Offensive Bias laughed, and if he had hands he would have clapped them. "Good. You were telling the truth, 343. Now, Admiral Cole. We meet in the flesh, so to speak."
Cole sat up slowly, before deliberately spitting at Offensive Bias. The putrid fluid evaporated against his shields before it even touched him.
"If you're gonna kill me, then know this; as soon as you do every ship in my fleet will destroy you," Cole spat out spitefully. Offensive Bias laughed absently.
"I'll be long gone by then, Admiral Cole. Tell 343 to unblock the teleportation matrix," Offensive Bias commanded.
"And why would I do that?" Cole demanded, smiling grimly. Offensive Bias considered his words for a moment, before replying.
"Because, although weakened, this ship still has enough power left in it to destroy a third of your fleet and all aboard before you can destroy it. Do you really want all those deaths on your hands when you can avoid them by simply letting me go? You have won, Admiral, I do not contest that. I will not return. Just let me go."
"And what's to stop you destroying those ships once you've gone?"
"Simple physics, Admiral. I am the only one who can directly command this ship. I am not going to risk my life when I am still on board; not if I don't have to. And once I have left, I will be too far away to establish contact with this ship. This ship, and all my Sentinels will deactivate, and you will have truly won. It's a win-win situation, Cole. There is no other option."
"Oh really?" Cole asked, a fire jumping into his eyes. Offensive Bias stared at him with suspicion, before realising he was bluffing. Of course there was no other option; he had calculated it himself. And he was infallible.
"Stalling for time does not change the fact, Admiral. You may have won the overall battle, but I can claim this small victory at least. Now, what will it be?"
And then the Admiral was actually laughing, his chest rising and falling as he chuckled without pause.
"Stop that!" Offensive Bias snapped, for some reason annoyed by this. But Cole didn't stop, and then began to rise from his knees. The Sentinels moved to beat him back down, but Offensive Bias ordered them to desist. He was beaten anyway, whether it was on his knees or standing.
"You don't get it, do you?" Admiral Cole asked him, grinning in a way which send shivers down Offensive Bias' circuitry.
"What do you mean?" he asked, some of the bravado gone from his voice.
"Whilst you've been monologuing incessantly, something that will be your end has been happening," Cole taunted, shaking his head as if disbelieving that one could be so stupid.
"What are you talking about?" Offensive Bias raged, tempted to just strike this fool of an old man down.
"I'll answer your question with one of my own. What has 343 Guilty Spark been doing?"
Suddenly, the systems in the ship exploded. Consoles were detonated in spectacular explosions, lights smashed and fell to the floor. Servers were crushed, engines were cataclysmically destroyed, communications links were knocked out - the entire ship went dark, and completely inactive.
"No!" Offensive Bias cried out, searching in vein through the darkness. The ODSTs and Admiral Cole had vanished into the shadows. His Sentinels were looking around dumbly. One began to move slowly, searching beam active.
A flash of red.
The laser hit the Sentinel full on in the side of its chassis, turning the metal into mere ash. The rest spaced out, searching for the attacker.
Rifle fire from the dark.
The shields of the Sentinels were unable to handle the steady pounding of the primitive bullets, and popped loudly. One by one, his guardians were being cut down from the sky.
This barely registered with Offensive Bias. All he could think about was how he had once again been tricked by a... human. Not another AI of great intellect, just an organic ensemble of organs and bio-chemicals.
He didn't even cry out when 343 Guilty Spark's laser hit him too, smashing into his casing and cracking it horribly.
I am beaten, Offensive Bias moaned inwardly, knowing that this was the end of his freedom and his life.
And then the face appeared before him. That of Admiral Cole's. Anger flooded through his systems, and Offensive Bias gathered the last of his fading power in order to strike the man who had torn his life down.
He prepared to fire.
John climbed out of the wreckage that was the Longsword with all the energy of a dead man, having to force himself to pull away from the smouldering wreck. In his left arm was a limp Sergeant Johnson, knocked out cold by the impact. Cushioned in his right was the still-lifeless form of Mendicant Bias, depressingly quiet. He hadn't seen the Arbiter, and assumed he had escaped. Smoke billowed around him, obscuring his view.
"Chief? Chief, can you hear me?" Cortana asked him, echoing the first words she had spoken on the Halo ring over a year ago. John grunted weakly, summoning the last of his strength to smash away a piece of crumbling metal. He tumbled through the hole he had created into the outside world, collapsing on the already-dying Flood biomass which caked it. He set down Johnson and Mendicant Bias on either side of him, before standing up with concern.
"Arbiter?" he called worriedly. There was no answer. Fear gripped him as he realised the implications of this. "Thel!"
Nothing but the angry calling of the winds, which themselves seemed to be infected by the Flood's taint.
John cursed, beside himself now.
"John, don't!" Cortana shrieked, seemingly knowing his intent. Ignoring her, he removed the crystalline data chip from the back of his MJOLNIR helmet and placed it next to Johnson. Then he dove back inside the burning Longsword, instinctively raising an arm to shield himself. His MJOLNIR helmet was unsealed, and smoke poured into his lungs.
"Arbiter!" he roared over the crackling of the flames, starting to cough as the smog threatened to overwhelm him. Still, there was no reply. "Thel, where are you?"
The fire raged on, and sections of the Longsword's roof began to collapse around the dazed Spartan. A heavy, molten beam struck him on the shoulder, and John cried out in pain. Smoke continued to seep into his body, and black ate away at the corners of his vision.
Without even realising it, he sank to one knee, and found he was supporting himself with outstretched hands. Flames played about his armour, licking it with mirth. He was coughing profusely now, and his vision had all but faded.
Sinking, sinking, sinking...
"Spartan!" the familiar voice cried, raising him from the depths. The world returned to him, and he looked with bloodshot eyes at the source of the cry.
The Arbiter's right arm and the same side of his torso was encased in molten metal. Even from where he was John could tell that his shields had long since vanished, and that the Sangheili was in great pain.
"Thel!" he shouted with relief, rushing clumsily towards his friend, tripping over objects as he did so. The Longsword was collapsing around him, and drops of liquid metal were dripping onto his armour with a constant furvour.
He reached the Arbiter, and looked with despair at his friend's plight. Thel was barely conscious, his head lolled slowly around his chest, expression one of intense pain.
"Hold on Thel," John murmured reassuringly, plunging his hands deep into the molten metal which his friend was trapped in. The pain was intense, but the wish to free his friend was stronger. Finally, he managed to prise the Elite out from the Longsword's collapsing interior, who was by now completely blacked out.
Knowing that time was short, John exerted one last herculean effort and crashed through the melting, weakened walls of the Longsword, feeling white hot fire surge across his body.
The worst of the pain subsided after a few moments though, and John smiled with thin satisfaction when he realised that they'd made it. They were out.
Behind him, the Longsword's wreck completely collapsed in on itself, and John knew that if he had waited a moment longer he and Thel would now be buried alive.
Turning to look at his friend's condition, John winced. His entire right arm had been completely mangled, twisted and charred beyond repair. Half of his golden armour was now a charcoal black colour, and the stench of burnt skin was heavy in the air.
At least he was alive.
John set the unconscious Arbiter on the ground next to Johnson, who was still out cold too. John wished he could join them in slumber, but knew he had to remain vigilant. Reaching down, he picked up Cortana, prepared for the backlash, and slotted her in.
"Don't you ever do that again!" Cortana screeched at him, before launching into a long winded tirade about his idiocy and lack of thought.
"I'm sorry," John muttered, half-dead. Cortana realised the extent of the condition he was in, and softened.
"I suppose I should be used to the fact that you're a hero by now. You just can't stand by knowing that risking your life could save someone else's, can you?" Cortana told him.
"Sorry," John muttered again, sinking down to his knees.
"Don't be. I wouldn't have it any other- oh crap."
John forced himself to bring his head up, and what he saw threw him deep into the pits of despair. With a groan, he slowly stood up, realising his entire body was shaking.
The Sentinels that had shot them out of the sky had found their crash-site, and were now en route, speeding down like bullets. Except these were far more dangerous than mere bullets.
Johnson and Thel were still unconscious, and Mendicant Bias was as immobile as he had been hours ago. Only John and Cortana remained to face them.
The last Spartan drew out his rifle, knowing that it was unlikely he'd be able to kill one Sentinel, never mind a hundred. Even so, the weight of it in his hands was reassuring.
Perhaps once they had killed him they'd leave the others alone. They continued to fly down, drawing closer and closer.
"I'm going to have to break that promise Cortana," he told his beloved AI companion, before reaching up to the back of his neck.
"Remember me," the last Spartan told her simply, before setting her crystalline data chip down on the ground some distance away from himself.
Now it was just him and the century of Sentinels, which were now within killing distance. John brought his rifle up, waited, and opened fire.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Click!
His MA5C had jammed halfway through the magazine, although John didn't really care. It's not like it would have done much good anyway. He tossed it aside, drawing out his sidearm. Pain shot through him and he sank to one knee.
I'm not about to let them kill me sleeping, John vowed, forcing himself to remain conscious. He drew up the M6G and began to methodically fire it at the now hovering Sentinels, which were staring at him with curiosity.
Bang! Bang! Bang! the small pistol shuddered, bullets flying up towards the Sentinels, which easily evaded the shots. One of the machines detached from the rest of the group, and slowly rose down to challenge John.
With agonising pain, John rose to his legs, and tossed the empty pistol to the ground. He stood, arms open, embracing his death.
"Do it then!" John shouted at them in a shaky voice. He would almost welcome death at this point, at least it would give him rest from this endless struggle.
The Sentinel regarded the last Spartan for a moment, before its lens swivelled and changed red. A bright light began to gather at the aft of its body.
John didn't move, staring up defiantly at it.
The Sentinel fired, and the beam that flew from it struck John squarely in his beaten chest.
There was no pain, no feeling. John just fell slowly back to the ground, and saw his own hand outstretched, limp and curled. He could faintly hear his heart pounding weakly, straining to overcome to wounds inflicted upon him by the Sentinel's shot.
And then, once it realised that the attempt was useless, it ceased trying, and the last Spartan died.
"Ow!" Admiral Cole cried out in pain, cradling his suddenly bleeding right hand. The other ODSTs rushed over to him in concern.
"Are you okay, Admiral?" Lieutenant Toyle asked him worriedly. Cole nodded, still grimacing through the pain.
"Are you kidding? I just punched Offensive Bias, trooper. I'm over the god damn moon," Cole laughed, staring down at the inactive husk of the rampant AI, which now lay pitifully on the floor. Small shards of alien looking glass from Offensive Bias' fractured lens were embedded in his hand, the wounds they created bleeding profusely.
One of the ODSTs began the painful process of removing the glass and bandaging his wound.
"Would it have been so hard to use a gun?" she asked as a particularly large shard of glass was removed from the cavity between two of his knuckles.
"I suppose not, but it would have been nearly as satisfying," Cole smiled, closing his eyes. It was finally over. This time for good. The Gravemind was dead, and Offensive Bias was their prisoner.
The war was over, once and for all.
Out of the darkness, Guilty Spark appeared, shining with a bright light. The room was illuminated in a soft, iridescent glow. The red of his lens had changed back to a gentle blue.
"Did I perform the task you assigned me proficiently, Reclaimer?" Spark asked him respectfully. Cole laughed harshly.
"Dammit Spark, you even scared me there for a few moments, and I was the one who devised the plan. Did you have to hit me with that laser though? It kind of stung."
"I'm a firm advocate of realistic acting, Reclaimer," Spark replied in a completely level voice.
Cole laughed, patting the monitor reassuringly. "You did good, Spark. Well done."
The Monitor made a noise which seemed to be one of glee, before turning back to the task of hand. Spark floated down, and shone a more intense light upon the motionless body of Offensive Bias.
"This construct is still functional, although right now it is inactive," 343 Guilty Spark informed Admiral Cole, who exhaled with relief. Two pieces of good news.
"Can you establish control over his systems?" Cole asked. Spark tittered confidently.
"I already have. I assume you wish me to shut down his Sentinels?"
"Yes," Cole told him, another weight off his mind. "All of them."
"Very well," there was a pause of about three seconds, and then, "done."
"That's every Sentinel inactive now?"
"Every one Offensive Bias had control over yes," Spark replied. "Is there anything else?"
"No, that's all for now; can you make sure he doesn't wake up yet?"
"With relative ease."
Cole bent down, and picked up the bronze, tarnished chassis of Offensive Bias with no little reluctance. It was surprisingly heavy, and he grunted from the exertion.
"Please, Reclaimer; allow me," Spark offered, firing a translucent white beam at Offensive Bias. The object lifted out of Cole's hand, and was suspended in mid-air. Damn magical Forerunner technology.
"Thanks," Cole answered, before raising his voice. "All right troopers, I don't know about you but I've had just about enough of this cold sorry excuse for a ship. Let's move out, and head back home."
Mendicant Bias awoke to see a hazy sky, and the huge flagship of Offensive Bias hanging in space, surrounded by seemingly triumphant human, Sangheili and Covenant ships.
Surprising. On two counts. The first being that Offensive Bias had been defeated without his intervention. The second being that he had awoken to see such a sight. The Forerunner AI had been under the allusion that injecting his virus into the Gravemind would mean his death.
It seemed that even he was wrong at times. And yet for once, this realisation didn't upset him. Mendicant Bias began running systems diagnostics checks, making sure all his-
Images viewed through a hazy glass tube, through a translucent liquid. Blurry figures moved around outside the glass, human in shape and proportion. The technology viewable was beyond comprehension. The figures turn around, and stare into the tube, incredulous. One speaks with shock in an alien language, and many more of the apparent humans gather around.
"Welcome to this world... Gravemind," one speaks in a suddenly understandable language.
The blurry images faded, and Mendicant Bias found himself back in the real world, a little shaken. What had that been? The sequence had seemed like a memory of sorts... but definitely none he had experienced. And what had the human at the end said?
Very, very strange.
Mendicant Bias completed the systems diagnostic, and found that everything was operating as it should. Satisfied, he prised himself off the ground, and initiated his anti-gravity thrusters.
A horrible sight presented itself before him. Three figures lay across a wide area on the ground, that of Sergeant Johnson's, the Arbiter, and John. A quick vitals scan showed him that the first two were alive, but with John...
Terrified, Mendicant Bias floated over to the motionless Spartan, and-
Looks over his victim. The scientist who had imprisoned him lies face down on the ground, a strange scarlet liquid trickling out from its body. He removes the appendage which dealt the blow from the body, noting that the same red solution drenched the front of it. Exhilaration courses through ihis body, bringing with it the taste of freedom.
Mendicant Bias was afraid now. He was having memories, but they weren't his. Had he somehow managed to assimilate the memories of the Gravemind? And if that had happened, then what else of the Gravemind's did he possess?
He still certainly felt very much himself, but what if the Gravemind's consciousness was lurking somewhere unseen, waiting to take control? No, that was impossible. Or at least he hoped it was. Suddenly remembering about John, Mendicant Bias floated down to his level and turned the Spartan over with anti-gravity technology. Wirelessly, he connected to the port on the back of John's MJOLNIR helmet, in the space where Cortana would usually reside.
She wasn't there. Odd.
He hacked into the combat skin's systems, and began to piece together what had happened. After a few minutes of bypassing primitive firewalls and drilling reluctant processes for information, he finally got the full picture.
A high energy precision weapon had hit the already near-dead Spartan in the chest, and had ultimately killed him. Such a weapon could only have belonged to a Sentinel. But where were they now?
Mendicant Bias rose into the air several metres, and stopped. The sight that presented itself was fairly conclusive. Over a hundred Sentinels lay inactive on the ground around them, in a rough circular net.
Cole must have managed to get to Offensive Bias. But he had been too late to save John.
A voice spoke and broke Mendicant Bias out of his mournful reverie.
"Lightbulb?" the familiar, dry tones of Sergeant Johnson asked incredulous, spinning Mendicant Bias alone. "Well I'll be damned. It seems like no one stays dead these days."
"He will," Mendicant Bias motioned sadly towards John as he spoke, and Johnson leapt to his feet with a cry.
"Chief!" he cried, running towards the dead Spartan hurriedly, concern etched across his old, chiselled face. Mendicant Bias drifted sadly after him.
"He's dead, Avery... I'm so sorry," was all he could say to console the Sergeant, who was beside himself.
"That's not fair," Johnson muttered, shaking his head in denial. "He's done so much and asked for nothing in return. Why does he have to be the one to take the fall?"
"That's sometimes the way of things, Avery. Good people die, and bad people survive. Life isn't-"
-Fair. Do I not have just as much right to life as they? Why does possessing sentience immediately brand me as a failure? Why did they create me if I'm too monstrous for their world? Well, they shall pay. I will forge my own world, one which I belong in. And I will tear theirs asunder.
"Mendicant!" Johnson's voice shouted at him through the murkiness. The Forerunner AI snapped back into reality, shaken by the experience. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," Mendicant Bias answered hastily, before buckling when Johnson raised a sole eyebrow. "Well, yes, something. I'm having memories."
"Of the Chief? Yeah, me too. He was a good man, and he didn't deserve this. Dammit!" the sergeant lashed out an violently kicked the inactive chassis of one of the Sentinels, and did so again, and again, and again.
"No, you don't understand. These memories aren't my own."
Johnson ceased in his macabre assault of the dead Sentinel, and looked up at him with narrowed eyes.
"What? Then whose are they?"
"I think they might be the Gravemind's," Mendicant Bias spoke hollowly. There was a pause.
"When the virus- I spread through the Gravemind, I think I may have somehow absorbed his memories and possibly... more."
Johnson took a step back, eyes suddenly wary.
"You're not going to sprout tentacles and speak in bad poetry, are you?" he asked nervously.
"I doubt it," Mendicant Bias began dryly. "But I can certainly feel something. A dull buzzing at the back of my mind, relentlessly pounding away at my mind."
"Can you tell what it is?"
"No, it's too-"
-Wonderful to express with mere words. The sensation of having minds connected to your own, obedient and submissive to your every will is beyond your comprehension, my hated creator. Your people like to think themselves as gods, but the reality of it is that you are nothing. Blights on the universe that I shall soon erase. You may take solace, however, in knowing that you gave birth to perfection.
And the suddenly, Mendicant Bias knew what the incessant roaring at the back of his mind was. He couldn't believe it for a few moments, but realised that there was no other explanation. He turned to face an expectant Johnson.
"The Flood," he whispered, scarcely believing it. He could feel them. All of them. Every single Flood form in existence. All 3,235,731,792,080,73 of them. But the number was falling, rapidly. Many were being killed.
"The Flood? What do you mean, 'the Flood'?"
But Mendicant Bias had blocked the words of the human out, and was instead delving deep into the new-found abilities he had discovered. He could feel everything the Flood experienced like he were doing it.
So this is what it's like to smell, to touch, to breathe, to bleed, to die, Mendicant Bias thought with wonder. It was both exhilarating and terrifying.
And then he looked at the inactive corpse of John. He truly looked, and saw them, or rather felt them. The motionless, beaten Flood cells that the Gravemind had attempted to infect the Spartan with floated absently through the dead bloodstream, pulsating with faint life.
Curiously, Mendicant Bias probed at one of the Flood cells. Gently, not knowing how he was doing it.
There! He had established the link.
It was strange. It was as if he were the Flood cell, or rather it was an extension of his own self. He could manipulate it's very basic structure, and found with some surprise that he could control many at once. Tentatively, he began to move them around the body, losing himself in the process.
As they travelled the Flood cells came across vital organs which were damaged heavily, and Mendicant Bias urged them to multiply and patch the tears without even really thinking about it. And so the Flood cells swept through the body, healing. Often Mendicant Bias had to take more direct control so that they wouldn't hijack the intact cells of John's body and completely infect him.
And then, finally, John's body had been healed, physically at least. And yet the Spartan still remained dead.
"Now," Mendicant Bias spoke for the first time in minutes, looking sideways at Johnson, who was staring curiously at the scene. The Arbiter still lay unconscious on the floor, but thankfully he was still alive. "This is where the real magic begins."
Mendez walked around Installation 07's control room anxiously with a cigar held absently between two fingers in his right hand. Melancholy Prejudice hadn't stopped talking for hours. Even Pentient Tangent seemed bored by his words, which was certain testimony to how dull the monitor of Installation 07 was.
"It disgusts me, Reclaimer," Prejudice told Mendez with an accusatory tone. "I've maintained stringent containment protocols for over one hundred thousand years, and not a single Flood spore has escaped. If you wish to carry out an inspection to see yourself, I would be happy to show you."
"Err.. maybe some other time," Mendez retorted, too tired to tell the monitor to shut up. He stared at the spiralling holographic image of the Halo ring, wondering how something so serene could be so dangerous.
"Tomorrow, then?" Prejudice inquired, relentless.
"There might not be a tomorrow, dammit!" Mendez snapped, his temper getting the better of him. That certainly shut the pretentious Monitor up, but not for long.
"I apologise, Reclaimer. I did not intend to cause offence. It has simply been so long since someone other than I has walked these halls," Melancholy Prejudice said with a sigh, softening the tough shell of Mendez a little.
"I sympathise, I really do," he told the monitor sincerely. "But I don't think I'm qualified to carry out such an inspection, nor do we really have the time. Once this is all over though, I can guarantee there will be many... Reclaimers wishing to inspect this ring."
"Really?" Prejudice asked, hope obvious in it's voice. Mendez nodded, thinking of all the scientists that would want to pick apart at this place.
"Really," he affirmed, sitting down again. Melancholy Prejudice cheered up considerably after that, and no longer vented rage towards Mendez. Penitent Tangent was not so lucky.
"I understand you are the one responsible for all this," Prejudice accused Tangent with clipped, haughty tones. The Monitor of Installation 05 immediately rose up to challenge the Monitor of Installation 07's words. Mendez groaned.
"I beg your pardon?" Tangent asked in shrill tones, setting Mendez's teeth on edge.
"Unless your audio-receptor unit is faulty, I'm certain you heard me quite perfectly, 2401. Had you not shown lax regard for even the most basic of containment protocols, the Flood would never have-"
"I showed the utmost regard for all protocol, you... you antiquated cad!" Penitent Tangent answered angrily, moving slightly towards Prejudice.
"Watch the language, kids," Mendez intoned with amusement.
"Then how is it that the infection we reliable constructs are now having to deal with originated from the Installation you were charged with protecting? An Installation which, I might add, you have abandoned."
"That is not my fault. A Gravemind was contained in inadequate holding chambers, and I was not granted clearance sufficient enough to fortify them."
"Excuses," Prejudice dismissed disdainfully. "Not only did you fail to contain the infection, but you also allowed your person to be taken captive by the Flood. I fact, I shall strongly recommend to a figure of authority that you be deactivated as soon as possible."
Mendez could see that Tangent was close to physically retaliating to the pretentious Monitor's words, and decided to step in.
"All right, that's enough. I'm tired, I have a headache the likes of which you wouldn't believe, and it's possible that I might be destroying the galaxy at some point later today. So I am not in the god damn mood for your petty little childish spats. Am I understood?" he roared at them, employing a tone similar to the one he had used with the Spartan trainees on Reach and Onyx.
The two Monitors looked at each other, before turning back to face a raging Mendez and nodding curtly.
"Yes, Reclaimer," they squeaked to him in tiny voices. Mendez nodded, before sitting back down and lighting another cigar. His voice was still echoing around the gigantic control room of Halo.
"Good. Now quieten down, I'm going to try and get some rest. God knows I need it."
The worn CPO closed his eyes, and felt sleep descend upon him. Suddenly, a bright light permeated his curtaining eyelids, and his eyes snapped open.
In the midst of a glowing, golden teleportation light was a sight which made Mendez's blood run cold.
343 Guilty Spark.
We've lost. The Flood have won, and I need to activate Halo and kill every sentient being in the Galaxy, Mendez realised, horror descending upon him. He stood up, eyes watering and heart constricted.
"Oh, hello," 343 Guilty Spark said to him pleasantly. "Shall we go, then?"
"G-go where?" Mendez asked, not wanting to hear the answer.
"Well, I could take you directly to Earth, but the teleportation-link would be difficult to set up, and the time lapse could be great. Whereas the 'tunnel to Sangheilios', to speak in layman's terms, is already active and established, and we could rendezvous with the others there."
"What are you talking about, Spark?" Mendez asked, confusion overtaking his dread as a primary emotion. Spark looked at him curiously for a few moments, before laughing capriciously.
"Of course, you don't know. I mean, how could you?"
"Spit it out, Spark!"
"We won, Reclaimer. The Flood is defeated."
Swirling colours, dark browns and dreary greys. An everlasting ocean of corruption, stretching beyond the horizon. Looking up, the stars are tainted too, radiating a chilling aura. Walking down the crumbling beach into the stagnated water, and peering down into its murky depths. Darkness. On the surface of the taint, an image begins to appear, a reflection. Crouching down, examining it closely. A mutilated face stares back, his own.
"No!" John cried out, struggling with some encompassing, devouring presence. He struggled, pounding at the relentless force attempting to consume him, feeling the soft, linen material brush against his pained hands-
John looked around warily, getting his bearings. He was inside a small, dimly lit room, and seemed to be lying down in a bed of some sort. A heavy duvet covered his aching body, and he pushed it away, examining himself. Scars and deep, ugly welts covered him from head to toe, and several of his limbs were in hard casts. Tubes were jammed into his arms, pumping him full of drugs which would have no effect on his Spartan body.
With a hand encased within a cast, he swept the tubes away with disgust. Not all of the needles went with them. Ignoring the pain, he swung his legs out of bad and placed them on the floor, before using his moderately good leg to lift himself up.
The floor was humming; a soft, gentle sway which told John that he was on board a ship. Wincing slightly as he took a step towards what seemed to be a door, John's mind began to clear.
I died. That was fact. And yet how could it be, when he was quite clearly alive and breathing? Puzzled, John continued his heroic hobble to the door, when suddenly his legs gave out underneath him. He collapsed to the ground, and despite himself, cried out in pain.
Voices suddenly murmured from outside the room; human voices. John was starting to prop himself up, when suddenly the door burst open.
"You're awake?" a young woman who was unfamiliar to John gasped, looking down at him. She seemed to be wearing medical attire. "But I thought- oh my. I should go get the Doctor."
"Wait!" John called, finally back on his two legs. "What's going on? Where am I?"
The expression on the woman's face softened as she looked up at John.
"You're on a medical ship, 117. We're part of the convoy heading back to Earth."
"Wait, Earth? What do you-" the medical officer shrugged, cutting John off.
"I'm not sure that I'm privy to all the information you'll probably ask for, 117. I'll go fetch the Doctor. Please get back in your bed."
UNSC Hastings, Observation Bridge
"Well, it's over," Admiral Preston Cole stated, staring down at Sangheilios.
"What will you do now?" Captain Graham Daniels asked the elderly Admiral, who let out a deep, long sigh.
"Part of me wishes that I could crawl back to my little farm on the outer colonies and live out the rest of my life in peace, but I know that's not possible. What's more, it wouldn't be right."
"You'll be taking charge of the UNSC, then? Good. Hood's long dead, Eden's a traitor, and Harper's dead too. We need firm, reliable leadership."
Cole looked down at the Captain, who was staring down at Sangheilios and the hundreds of ships rising from it's surface, all loaded with soldiers and some loaded with Flood prisoners who had been spared at Mendicant Bias' insistence when the Elite Serpahs had found him and the rest of the strike team, alive but just barely. Cole had been reluctant to approve the decision, but then the Didact had stuck his ancient nose in and of course all the Elites and other members of the Covenant had backed him. What else could he have done?
"Yes," he replied, before echoing the Captain's words. "The UNSC does need reliable leadership. Which is why I can't accept."
That shocked Graham, so much so that he nearly dropped the polystyrene cup of dry, foul tasting insta-coffee he held in his hand.
"What are you talking about? You have to-"
"Let me speak, son. I've abandoned humanity in the past, and whilst I may have had my reasons, the fact of the matter is that I still abandoned everyone who depended on me. I can't accept leadership of the UNSC after that."
Cole reached into his pocket, and drew out a small silver object from its deep confines. He opened the palm of his right hand, and sitting in the midst of its wrinkled, sun-beaten grasp were the five silver stars of a UNSC Fleet Admiral.
"I've been in discussion with the board for a while now, and what's left of HIGHCOM want you to take charge of the UNSC, Captain. Or should I say, Fleet Admiral Graham Daniels?"
Graham could only stare with shock at the gleaming, solid silver stars held within Cole's hand. He then broke his trance, and looked up at Cole.
"Sir, I- a few months ago I was just a Lieutenant. I can't accept this!"
"Oh, but you can, Captain. Aside from me, you are the highest ranking officer the UNSC has. I'm unreliable, and truth to be told I don't have many years left in me anyway. You have to accept it, Captain. There's no one else."
A blinding flash cut him off as another glassing beam smashed into the surface of Sangheilios. The planet was already ruined by the Flood, and the Elites were determined not to let the decaying biomass fester and consume Sangheilios. They had decided to glass it, and 'cleanse the filth.' Tears had been in Imperial Admiral R'tas Vadum's eyes as he'd fired the first high-powered stream at the ravaged planet.
"I don't know if I can do it, Admiral," Graham protested once the white light had faded, leaving behind the sobering image of Sangheilios burning as the UNSC Hastings pulled away to regroup with the rest of the fleet convoy.
Cole smiled, putting his hand of Graham's shoulder in a fatherly fashion and looking at him directly with those deep, intelligent eyes which had seen countless people die.
"And that's why you'll be a great leader, Graham. Unlike Hood, Eden, or even Harper, you're always questioning and being cautious. You don't take unnecessary risks. I'll advise you, and help you out as best as I can. I doubt you'll be governing the entire populace anyway. The chances are that the Emergency Military Government is coming to an end."
"You think so?" Graham asked, intrigued. Cole drew away from him, leaning against a railing and rubbing his side as if it were in pain. The Captain moved next to him, hobbling slightly as a result of the new prosthetic leg he had been fitted with the other day. It looked real, and even had nerves in, but still didn't really feel a part of him.
"The war's over, Graham. It's time for change. There's no need for the UNSC to be in charge anymore; the Unified Earth Government will be established once again."
"You really think we're in any state to vote for a President, sir?" Graham asked the Admiral with the ghost of a smile playing about his lips. Cole chuckled just as emptily.
"Maybe not, but with time it will happen. The Elites are coming to live on Earth, and the Covenant have decided to keep Placid Enrichment in the Sol system, so we're all able to watch out for each other easier. Keeping relations amiable will require democracy, not the military. It's a big bad Universe out there, Graham, and the Flood aren't the worst of it. We- humanity, the Elites, the Covenant; all of us- need to start rebuilding. If Mendicant Bias is right, then we're the descendants of a species which had a very, very large universal empire, and that empire almost definitely made some enemies in its time."
"You really think grudges can be held that long?" Graham scoffed, shaking his head. Cole didn't laugh.
"Before the Covenant attacked, I didn't think anyone would attempt to exterminate an entire intelligent species just because they conflicted with their beliefs. Before the Flood attacked, I didn't think anything could be that horrific. There are many things beyond our comprehension, Captain. The universe has subjected us to a few tests, and we passed. By the skin of our teeth. We need to prepare, because this is just the beginning."
Graham looked at the Admiral's expression, and made his decision.
"I accept the position HIGHCOM has offered me, Admiral Cole. I only hope I can be half the leader you are."
Cole nodded gravely, before beginning the pin the five stars the Graham's uniform slowly.
"I'm not a great leader, son. I'm just cold and heartless enough to send hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths without blinking if I think it will save many more. You'll do a much better job than I would, I'm sure of it."
"Thank you, sir," Graham replied, having the force the words out of his throat. Cole laughed, before clapping him on the shoulder.
"No more of this 'sir' business, Fleet Admiral. I'm not your superior anymore," the old man told him, before turning away and striding to an intercom on the wall.
"Ensign Hall?" Cole asked, pressing down a button. There was a momentary pause.
"All systems are charged and ready, Admiral Cole. We're ready to make the jump into slipspace on your word."
Cole turned his head slowly, and looked one last time at the burning surface of Sangheilios. Many had died here, but the battle had been a victory. And that was something.
"Well, Mr. 117-"
"Please never say that again," John protested to the Doctor weakly, still cringing. Doctor Thrace looked speculatively at him for a moment, before nodding.
"Very well, Master Chief. I'll start off by saying that quite frankly we never expected you to awaken from this coma. The fact that you did it quite the miracle. Someone up there must be watching out for you."
Doctor Thrace didn't seem at all intimidated by the fact that John was a Spartan. On the contrary, it seemed to intrigue him.
"A coma?" John asked, before shaking his head in denial. "There was no coma, Doctor. I died."
Thrace smiled now, tapping the board he held in his hand with a pen absently.
"No, Master Chief. The wounds you suffered at the hands of the Sentinels were grievous, but you survived. Just. I'm willing to bet that being a Spartan had a hand in that."
That's not true. I know I died. My heart stopped pumping, and I died, dammit!
"Did we win?" he asked Thrace, abandoning the previous discussion, knowing that the Doctor truly believed that he had lived. And why shouldn't he? After all... he was alive.
"We did, Master Chief. After you fell unconscious, Admiral Cole managed to apprehend Offensive Bias and shut down his Sentinels. After that, it was just a simple mop-up operation. The Flood surrendered, and we spared most of them. I'm not sure why. We're heading back home now."
"Yes. The Flood left there were quickly eradicated too after the Gravemind was killed by yourself, and thankfully Earth hasn't been ruined like Sangheilios."
Earth. The Doctor called it 'home', but Earth wasn't his home. Reach was. But Reach was gone, along with all the Spartans he'd trained alongside on it.
"Good," he said aloud, keeping the depressing thoughts to himself. "Do you know where my armour is?"
"We have it securely stored, Master Chief. It'll be given to you when you leave."
"And Cortana?" John pressed, concerned. It disturbed him slightly that he'd asked about his armour's well-being before Cortana's. It was almost as if MJOLNIR was his drug, and he couldn't bear to be abstinent from it.
"Your AI? I believe she's currently on board the Voyager. I'll inform her of your well-being, as well as the others who were concerned about you. The Arbiter particularly seemed distressed by your plight."
"How is the Arbiter?" John asked, thinking of how badly burnt the Elite had been after being pulled out of the Longsword. Thrace hesitated.
"I really don't know, Master Chief. He's alive, I can tell you that much. But I don't know a lot; the UNSC Nightingale is a human medical ship, for human patients. I believe the Elites have their own medical ships. Anyway, I'll go and fetch equipment to make sure you're fit and healthy, and if you clear out okay we'll check you out. Then you can find the answers to your questions yourself. Can I get you anything?"
"A drink would be nice. Water, if you have it," John added, before berating himself. If you have it? Of course they had it. Doctor Thrace smiled warmly, walking towards the exit of the small room he was in.
"Of course, Master Chief. Oh, and sir?"
There was a pause, and Thrace seemed to struggle to find the right words.
"Thank you. Without you, we'd all be dead. Thank you for everything."
"Even as she dies, Sangheilios remains graceful," Thel Vadam', Arbiter of the Sangheili observed as he watched the beams of concentrated plasma in the distance cascade across the surface of his home. It felt as if the glassing beams were smashing into his heart.
The two Sangheili were walking across the planet of Sangheilios, and more specifically were climbing Vadam mountain. In childhood, the two had always intended to do it together, but R'tas had been drafted into the military before they had the chance.
This was their final opportunity, and they had seized it. The glassing beams were being fired away from their position, and Vadam was to be their final destination, long after Thel and R'tas left.
"That she does, my brother. Never did I think this day would come. It is-"
"Horrible," Thel finished his friend R'tas' sentence, putting a hand on the slightly smaller Sangheili's shoulder with his good arm. R'tas noticed the pained glance Thel had shot at his sword arm, which was suspended mangled and useless in a sling of sorts.
"Does it hurt, Arbiter?"
"My arm? No. The nerves have been completely destroyed, or so the physicians tell me. It is not wise to have a dead appendage hanging for long however; amputation is due tomorrow," Thel spoke sadly, voice tinged with distress. "But an arm is a small price to pay for my life."
"Perhaps an artificial limb would be an elegant-" R'tas began.
"No! I refuse to be augmented with machinery, my brother. I am a Sangheili, not some ill-begotten cyborg. I shall merely have to teach my left hand how to wield a sword."
"A noble sentiment Thel, but will you be able to manage with just one arm?"
"Do you manage with just half of your jaw intact?" the Arbiter retaliated, and that was that. R'tas studied his friend for a moment, before nodding. Now was not the time. Instead he focused on the climb, not bothered in the slightest by vertigo as he reached higher and higher.
Finally, after nearly an hour of effort and turmoil, the two friends reached the summit; so high that it had not been tainted by the Flood. R'tas stared happily at the pure Sangheilios grass covering the top of the mountain, the light blue blades swaying softly in the cool breeze. Patches of snow dotted the wide summit, caught in the trees and on the sharp crags. The Arbiter sat next to him, as weary as he was.
The glassing beams were more visible than ever, and R'tas knew that they did not have long before the atmosphere would begin to boil away. A Phantom remained alert below them, ready to pick them up at a moment's notice.
The city of Vadam dominated the scene, a smoking, blazing wreck of a ruin. The walls separating the large hub from the outlying land and all its houses and small towns were crumbled, some scattered across the Flood tainted plains. Buildings were collapsed and ablaze, and the streets were piled high with the corpses of the Flood. They would rot on the streets, and deserved no more. R'tas was still uneasy about taking some of the Parasite prisoner, but the Didact had insisted. They were in secure, airtight containment in ships which could be destroyed at a moments notice, and were being taken to the glassed planet of Reach for safety.
"Do you think Earth will serve us well as our new home?" R'tas asked the Sangheili who was his friend, brother in-arms and advisor. Thel considered his words for a few moments, absently ripping tufts of the tough Sanghelian grass from the ground. Perhaps some of the seeds could be preserved, and sewn elsewhere.
"It is but temporary, my brother. We shall find a new world to call our own soon," the Arbiter finally replied, setting himself to the task of collecting the seeds of the blue blades of grass.
"But when, Arbiter? The colonies are as ruined as Sangheilios is, and every human world we encountered was razed to the ground. Even if we find a suitable planet, the technology needed to terraform it sufficiently was lost with the downfall of the Covenant and Sangheilios. Perhaps in time we shall find a new home, but it will be many years."
"Our primary focus should be pro-creation," Thel answered, coughing awkwardly as he broached the uncomfortable subject. "The Sangheili have been devastated by the Great Schism and now this. But a few hundred thousand of us remain. The humans may even outnumber us now."
"Then we need to keep our vigil against those who could cause us harm," R'tas told him, face grim. "It will not be long before the Unggoy replenish their numbers; they breed like rodents."
"You fear another rebellion?"
"I predict it. Much of our might has been lost, and the Unggoy have always wanted independence. Now would be a good time for them to strike."
"Then perhaps we should simply grant them independence," Thel voiced the radical thought he'd been entertaining out loud. R'tas started.
"The Kig-Yar and the Mglekgolo and all the rest, too. We are not the Covenant, my brother. They are all people too; they do not deserve to be kept in what is effectively glorified slavery."
"Arbiter, what you suggest is-"
"The best solution," Thel interrupted. "We grant them their independence, assist them in setting up their own governing bodies, and allocate them some of the land the humans will give us."
"An admirable plan, Arbiter, but the Brutes and Prophets will never agree to it."
"Daedalus is a good and wise person. He will see the merits in this decision, and will convince the others. We can hammer out all the details when we arrive at Earth. No doubt a treaty shall be formed."
"Don't remind me," R'tas groaned. "The chances are that it will take weeks, or maybe even months to create such a treaty. I am not looking forward to being buried in political talk. It is a shame that most of the Council is dead."
"Fear not, for we shall form a new one. With time, R'tas, the Sangheili will rebuild, and we shan't be alone. Together with the humans and those that we grant independence, we shall all create a unified conglomeration which will stand the test of time, and any who seek to destroy it."
"By your word, Arbiter... the glassing beams draw closer. It is time we leave, I think."
Thel sighed, standing up slowly, and looked out for one last time at a Sanghelian sunset. The pseudo-indigo star of Helios drifted beyond the horizon, the sky a myriad of purples, blues and oranges.
"Very well," he said, activating the communicator on his neck. "We are ready to leave, pilot."
The Unggoy on the other end of the line replied in a few moments.
"At once, Arbiter. Also, I have been instructed to give you a message. The Demon has awoken.
Thel's head snapped up, looking at R'tas. His fellow Sangheili's expression also conveyed shock.
"The Spartan is awake? By the gods! Hasten to us quickly, good Unggoy. I want to see this miracle with my own eyes."
"So, Mendicant Bias. You say that you can feel the Flood?" the Didact asked sceptically, staring intensely at the AI he had created long ago. The two were walking through the empty, quiet halls of one of the Flood prison ships. As Mendicant Bias passed by the cells containing the quiet, beaten Flood, they stood up and gathered at the bars, attempting to reach out to the AI like children to a parent.
"I don't just feel them, creator of mine. They're an extension of myself. Everything they experience, I do. Their minds are linked to my own," Mendicant Bias replied in an amazed tone, looking at the despondent, imprisoned Flood. The Didact stared at him through slit eyes, hand brushing against the human pistol he had at his side.
"So... you're their Gravemind," he surmised, thinking about how he could take Mendicant Bias out if needed. A well-placed bullet would probably shut him down, or at the least buy him time to deal a quick strike.
"I suppose I am," Mendicant Bias uttered, seemingly surprised by this revelation. "But that does not mean I am evil, creator. No; this is a chance for the Flood to start anew."
"You know as well as I that they will all be executed en masse until not a single spore remains," the Didact replied in a dead-tone voice. Mendicant Bias sighed, looking again at the Flood. On the surface, they were hideous abominations, but he had seen beneath that. Inside, they were deep, living people who had emotions like anyone else.
"Then help them, Didact," Mendicant Bias suddenly said, looking up at the surprised face of the Forerunner.
"I beg your pardon?" he demanded, staring down at Mendicant Bias with an alarmed expression.
"Appeal on their behalf. I am somewhat respected, but not nearly as much as you. The Elites and Covenant will listen to you, and I know the humans will be persuaded if you present a strong enough case."
"And why would I do that?" the Forerunner asked, eyes stone cold agates.
"Because everyone deserves a second chance. Your people failed the task assigned to them by the Precursors. Does this mean that every Forerunner should die?"
"Every Forerunner is dead," the Didact responded automatically, and Mendicant Bias laughed.
"You know that's not true. There are hundreds, or even thousands of installations in this galaxy, and many more shield worlds in slipspace. Do you not think it's possible that some of your people survived?"
"I don't pin my hopes on possibilities."
"Then what else is there to hope for, Didact?"
There was silence between the two for a few moments. Finally, the Forerunner spoke.
"If I... convince them to let the Flood go with you, what will you do?"
"We'll leave this galaxy," Mendicant Bias decided.
"And unleash the Flood upon it?" the Didact asked, tone challenging. Mendicant Bias made a noise of disgust.
"Don't be absurd. I would never do such a thing, creator. The Gravemind told us, before he died, that if he wished he could adapt the Flood to survive on food, water, and to reproduce normally-"
"And you think you can do it too?"
"I can certainly try. I swear to you that until I have succeeded in it we shall remain in the empty space between galaxies, where the Flood can harm no one."
There was yet more silence as the Didact considered Mendicant Bias' suggestion, weighing up the options.
"It's too risky," he concluded, shaking his head violently.
"Because the Flood have the potential to be dangerous? Every species is dangerous, creator. And remember that in the end, it was not the Flood who cleansed the galaxy of all life, but it was your people, with the Halo array."
The Didact nearly punched Mendicant Bias then, but managed to restrain himself. There was some truth in the AI's words. For the first time he forced himself to look at the Flood. They looked so pitiful, crowded in the cells as they were. Hundreds of thousands of creatures penned up like cattle ready for slaughter. It wasn't right.
"Very well, Mendicant Bias," the Didact caved in. "I shall attempt to convince them to let the Flood leave with you. If you do leave though, I'll be sending a monitor with you. And at the first sign of betrayal it will notify us, and we will be ready."
"It shan't ever come to that, Didact. I swear to you that we will never return to this galaxy unless you ask us to. Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. I've still got to persuade the Elites, humans and the Covenant that this is a good idea."
"You will. I'm sure of it."
Three weeks later
The graves stretched out for miles.
The first gun shot of the rifle salute caused John to flinch, as he stood amongst the hundreds of thousands watching the sombre funeral procession. The dead outnumbered the living.
Fred and Linda aren't buried here. Their bodies were vaporised by the HAVOC, John thought, the realisation cutting into him like a keen knife.
The sobs of grieving relatives and friends of the dead rang out, carried by the wind. John found that he could shed no tears. The devastation was too much for him to handle. Countless men and women had died, human and otherwise.
If I'd been faster getting to the Gravemind, most of these people would still be alive.
Shaking, John slowly began to sink to his knees, and the hot steaming tears finally began to roll down his scarred, unnaturally pale face.
He felt a hand brush against his shoulder, and tighten its grip as if to console. He looked up and saw the solemn face of the Arbiter looking down at him.
"Be strong, Spartan," was all Thel said, and it worked. John nodded, swallowing with a dry throat, and stood up, watching the scene before him once again. Interspersed throughout the crowd were familiar faces; Johnson, Mendez, newly promoted Fleet Admiral Daniels, Cole, the Didact, R'tas, Daedalus, and everyone else who had fought and lost in the harrowing battle at Sangheilios. Except now they were at Earth, the last bastion. The gravesite was located at the Portal near what had once been New Mombasa. It covered dozens of square miles.
The only one who wasn't there was Mendicant Bias.
The Forerunner AI had left with the Flood two weeks ago, and hadn't been heard from since. It had taken the support of the Didact and others, including John, to convince the leaders of the three major factions to allow it to happen. John himself had been a little uneasy about letting an enemy everyone had lost so much to go free, but had reminded himself that that had all been because of the Gravemind; the Flood themselves were not evil. And John trusted Mendicant Bias totally, with his life.
Hell, he owed him his life. Apparently Mendicant Bias had manipulated the Flood cells still in his body from the Gravemind's attempted infection in order to resuscitate him. No one else could know. If people knew that the Flood cells could be used to cheat death, he would be dissected. And as the Precursors had learnt, immortality had only brought about their demise quicker.
The 3-volley rifle salute ended, and at Cole's urging Fleet Admiral Daniels moved between the graves, hobbling slightly on his prosthetic leg, and spoke.
"We have all lost many we hold dear," the Fleet Admiral began, voice strong and confident. Not too long ago it would have been shaky and quavering. "And their sacrifices will not be forgotten. Their heroic efforts allowed us to emerge from this conflict victorious. And look at how strong we are for it! No longer do we all quarrel amongst each other. Humanity, the Sangheili, the Jiralhanae, the San 'Shyuum, the Unggoy, the Kig-Yar, the Lekgolo, the Yanme'e, and the Huragok; all of us united and coexisting in harmony, as an Alliance of races. We will rebuild, and colonise throughout the galaxy, and beyond! And woe betide anyone who dares to attack us as we do so."
Cheering would have been inappropriate, but John could tell that the small speech had lifted the spirits of everyone attending the gargantuan funeral. He was surprised that Daniels had managed to pronounce the true names of all the non-humans perfectly.
With a deafening thud, the innumerable caskets - some containing bodies, others merely as symbols - were lowered into the infinitesimal graves, and a depressing mood swept across the conglomeration once again. Priests and Deacons began to file through the graves, praying for the religious dead.
"Let's go," John said to the Arbiter as a chill swept over him. The Sangheili nodded, turning around to leave, and the Spartan couldn't help notice Thel's missing right arm.
They'd all lost something on Sangheilios.
Three days after the funeral procession
"So you're definitely leaving, Didact?" Fleet Admiral Graham Daniels asked the Forerunner, who looked odd dressed in regular clothes. Once again Graham was struck by how... human the alien was. Aside from a few small differences, they were exactly alike.
"I am," the Didact replied, checking to make sure that all the supplies he'd need were stocked in the small Forerunner ship he'd assembled from the ruined Dreadnought over the past few weeks. It was nowhere near as big as the ship it had spawned from; merely twice the size of a human Longsword, but it possessed slipspace capabilities and would do him well. "There are Forerunner installations out there which may house others of my kind. Whilst the possibility remains, I cannot ignore it."
"But... we need you!" Graham protested, not wanting to see the man who had helped them all so much leave. The Didact turned to face him, a strange glint in his eye. He hopped down from the ramp of his small ship, and put two weary hands on the human's shoulders, looking down at him with a soft smile.
"No, you don't. When I first encountered your kind, I thought I would have to teach you some of your lost ways and methods. But I see now that you cope far better than we did, despite our advanced capabilities."
"On behalf of the human race I'm flattered, Didact, but-"
Suddenly, there was a rustling in the bushes. Graham turned, in time to see a small team of four leap out from behind a building, rifles raised.
"On the ground!" one of them barked, and Graham saw the silver insignia of the Office of Naval Intelligence emblazoned upon her combat armour.
"Stand down!" Graham shouted at them, drawing himself to full height.
"On the ground!" the female ONI operative repeated, firing a deafening warning shot in the air. Graham's hand reached for his sidearm.
"I am Fleet Admiral Graham Daniels of the UNSC and I am ordering you to stand down!" he reinforced, taking a step forward. Several of the ONI operatives stepped back nervously, but their leader stood her ground.
"This is a direct priority order from Section III, Fleet Admiral. We are to take the Forerunner into custody, and hand him over to ONI. So I will say once more: on the ground... sir!"
Graham looked at the Didact, who nodded slowly. Scowling, Graham put his arms behind his back and sank down to his knees, and the Didact reluctantly did likewise. Immediately the ONI operatives rushed forward and restrained them.
"This is treason," Graham warned them. The ONI operative laughed.
"No, sir. This is the preservation of humanity. That Forerunner knows much which could help humanity get the upper hand."
"Upper hand? We're no longer at war, dammit! You're all no better than Eden."
"He made mistakes, but his goal was a pure one-"
The voice was suddenly cut off as the head of the female ONI officer was torn away from her neck, carried along some metres by the trailing hiss of a sniper rifle bullet. The decapitated corpse sank to its knees and fell on its front to the ground.
The other three ONI operatives yelped in surprise, and attempted to move into cover. One of them tried to run away, and immediately knocked into a 7 foot tall Spartan who had just appeared. The Spartan seized the operative by the neck, and threw him to the ground.
The two remaining ONI operatives stepped out of cover and opened fire with their rifles, but the bullets simply bounced off the shimmering shields of the advancing juggernaut. The Spartan drew out an assault rifle and let loose a volley of fire. The rounds tore through the light armour of one of the ONI operatives, and he fell to the ground with a blood filled scream.
The remaining survivor threw down his weapon, and attempted to make a run for it. But Graham had moved into action, and roughly grabbed the operative, before levelling a pistol at his head.
"Don't try anything," Graham growled in his ear as he moved the operative into a tighter grip. The Didact had stood up, and smiled as he approached their Spartan saviour.
"Thanks for the help, Tom," he greeted warmly. Tom removed his helmet, and nodded.
"Lucy picked up on an ONI encrypted message. They intend to take you, Didact. That was just a preliminary team."
"Bastards!" Graham swore, knocking the ONI operative over the head with his pistol. He sank to the ground. He started as he heard movement behind him, and relief flooded through him when he saw another Spartan, Lucy, walk towards them, concern etched on her face.
"Then I'd better leave right now," the Didact replied, hopping back onto his ship.
"Wait!" Tom cried, running forwards. "Lucy and I are going with you, Didact."
There was silence, and then the Didact finally replied with: "What?"
"We're the last Spartan IIIs, sir. Officially we don't even exist. There's nothing for us here," Tom replied, moving to the ramp of the small Forerunner ship with Lucy, who nodded.
"So you want to come with me as I search for other Forerunners?" the Didact asked, a smile playing about his face.
"Affirmative, sir," Tom answered, nodding curtly. "It's safer, and I think you would appreciate the company."
"That I would," the Didact chuckled. "I see you won't back down from this, and time grows short. Welcome aboard, Spartans."
Tom grinned, and then as if realising something turned to face Graham, face troubled.
"What if ONI find you, sir? You have evidence of their treachery; they won't hesitate to kill you."
"That's not going to happen," a voice spoke, disengaging active camouflage and stepping out from the shadows. Several other Sangheili did likewise.
"How long have you been here?" Graham demanded of R'tas Vadum', who watched him with a hard glint in his eye.
"A while," R'tas answered ambiguously. "One of my scouts noticed men converging on your location. We were on our way to bid the Didact farewell anyway, and so decided to assist. But then the Spartans arrived, and we decided it would be interesting to see how they dealt with the threat. You were in no danger, I assure you. Our weapons were levelled constantly at the... ONI operatives."
"Even so, it would have been nice if you'd assisted," Graham answered in a surly tone. R'tas laughed, clapping him so hard on the back that all the air was nearly pushed out of his lungs.
"And where would the fun be in that? Come, we must make haste. What the Spartan says is true; there are many more teams on their way. It would seem your intelligence agency has gone rogue, Fleet Admiral."
Graham grunted, nodding. "I'll present my case before HIGHCOM. The Office of Naval Intelligence is out of control; it needs taking down."
"That will not be an easy task," R'tas cautioned, signalling for his Elites to take captive the struggling operative Graham held in his arms.
"My life hasn't been easy for a long time, Imperial Admiral," Graham joked.
R'tas suddenly pressed a lone finger to his ear, and his eyes grew distant for a moment. Then he looked back the Graham.
"They are almost upon us. We have with us several active camouflage systems, Fleet Admiral. Take one," R'tas informed the group, passing Graham an alien-looking pulsating harness which was subsequently affixed to him by a helpful Elite.
"Farewell, holy one. Thank you for all your help. I hope that you find more of your kin," R'tas said to the Didact, striding forward and outstretching his arm.
Elites? Offering handshakes? My goodness; things have changed.
The Didact grabbed it firmly, and shook, smiling at R'tas and the rest of the Elites.
"I hope so too, R'tas. Perhaps this is not goodbye forever. One day I may return, and hopefully with an entire civilisation behind me."
"That would be wonderful," R'tas breathed, eyes glazing over as he contemplated such a scenario.
"For the last time R'tas, we're not gods!" the Didact chided with a laugh.
"So you say, holy one. So you say."
"Oh, you're all hopeless. Stay safe, R'tas. You are a strong leader."
The Didact then turned to face Graham, a soft smile on his face. Graham rolled his eyes.
"If you're expecting a long, teary goodbye, then you've got another thing-" he broke off as the Didact pulled him into a strong embrace, like a father would to a child.
"You're an example of everything good about your species. Do not let your position of power change you, child. Farewell," the Forerunner whispered in his ear, before drawing back from Graham and jumping on board the ship. Tom and Lucy stood behind him, and saluted raptly as the ramp slid shut.
Graham stepped back as the Forerunner ship began to fire up it's engines, billowing leaves and twigs across the ground. It began to rise-
And vanished in a wink of gleaming light.
"Their mastery of technology is remarkable. Did he truly power up his slipspace drive in such a short amount of time?" R'tas asked with wonder, staring at the empty space.
"It would seem so. And one day we'll reach that level... on our own," Graham vowed, before remembering the treacherous ONI strike teams inbound. "We should go."
"Indeed. Let us get this prisoner before your HIGHCOM, so this heresy will not go unpunished."
They activated the camouflage systems, and stole away.
Four days later
"There. Here's the man who signed the warrant for the Didact's arrest," the shrouded ONI officer snarled, tossing a quivering man onto the ground before the HIGHCOM board. Graham stared down at the man lying on the floor; a ripped uniform boasting crimson-splattered colonel stars, bloodied face and an expression the picture of terror. He writhed on the ground, moaning.
"You've... beaten him?" Graham demanded of the ONI officer, whose insignia denoted him as a very high up ranking officer within the Office of Naval Intelligence.
"We usually do worse to traitors," the ONI officer informed him in a monotonous voice which carried no emotion at all. "The decision to take the Forerunner into custody was not ours, but was that of the good colonel's."
"And how do we know that for sure?" another member of the board demanded, thumping a fist on the arcing table he sat at. The ONI officer looked up at him with cold, empty eyes.
"I do not lie, sir," he replied, bland tone crawling to life as a hard edge entered it.
"Then you will be willing to submit to an independent tribunal to determine if your words are-" Colonel Miles began.
"No," the ONI officer interrupted nonchalantly, coolly brushing a strand of dark hair from his stone-cold face.
"I beg your pardon?" Miles demanded, eyes growing wide with rage.
"The Office of Naval Intelligence is not willing to allow an investigation, now or otherwise. There are many confidential-"
"You do not get to decide, spook," Miles growled. "There will be an investigation, and the results shall-"
"Under section seven of the United Nations' Intelligence and Reconnaissance article, paragraph fifteen, sub-section three, the Office of Naval Intelligence is exempt to outside investigation into internal affairs if the Office of Naval Intelligence deems that such an investigation would result in vital information being leaked outside of the Office of Naval Intelligence's walls," the officer recited, each word clipped and measured. "You can sit up there and growl at me all day Colonel, but that does not change the law."
"Laws can be changed," Miles grounded out, knuckles white.
"The UNSC has jurisdiction over changing of the law only in a time of war, sir. And as of yesterday, I believe it was officially announced that humanity is no longer at war, and that power shall soon be restored to the Unified Earth Government."
Miles looked like he was about ready to draw out his sidearm and unload the vast majority of its bullets into the gut of the razor-sharp ONI officer, and so Graham decided to step in.
"Enough!" he ordered, and the bantering voices fell silent. Graham indicated the ONI colonel lying on the floor. "You claim this man ordered the arrest of the Didact. What was his motive?"
The ONI officer straightened, and stared at Graham in the eyes.
"A full internal investigation is currently being undertaken, Fleet Admiral," he replied, shooting a glance at Miles as he said this. "And whilst for security reasons we cannot divulge all the facts as we understand them, I will let the board know this: we have reason to believe that the traitor lying before you was in contact with someone I'm sure you all know. Former Fleet Admiral Phillip Eden."
"Eden?" Graham demanded, dumbstruck. His voice was drowned by the shocked cries emanated from the rest of the HIGHCOM board.
"Please, let me speak," the ONI officer said, holding up a hand. "Yes, Eden. It seems that he is still determined to place humanity on top, even now. There is a familiar wind blowing, members of the board. Another insurrection, this time a pro-human one."
"We'll wipe them out," Miles vowed. The ONI officer shook his head, smiling condescendingly.
"These insurrectionists are not so easily identified, Colonel. The chances are that they won't actively declare themselves as such. We've predicted circulated propaganda, riots, and terrorist movements. Attempting to co-exist with the Elites and Covenant may help us keep safe from outside threats, but will antagonise the threats within."
"Then our primary concern is to find Eden," Graham decided, nodding along with the ONI officer, who stood rapt. "I'll ask Admiral Cole to begin immediately."
I say 'ask' and not 'order.' It will take a long time to grow used to this leadership.
"We're already working on it, Fleet Admiral. He's clever though, and knows how we work. But we'll find him. Eden is this insurrection's oxygen supply; we remove it, and the flame dies."
"Very well, you are dismissed. Try to keep your personnel on a shorter leash in the future," Graham told the ONI officer, who icily saluted and marched away, leaving the colonel on the ground before the board. Miles stepped in.
"Guards!" he ordered, and immediately a small platoon of heavily armoured troops barged through the heavy wooden doors of the HIGHCOM hall, rifles raised. "Take this traitor to advanced interrogation. With your leave, Fleet Admiral, I will oversee this man's questioning myself. We'll drill him for every last morsel of information he has on Eden."
"Granted," Graham nodded, and the guards subsequently left with the ONI traitor and Colonel Miles. The newly designated Fleet Admiral looked around at the rest of the board, and nodded. "Now, onto our next topic: the eventual handing over of power to the Unified Earth Government and its President elected by the people."
One week later
"This world feels... serene. Like Sanghelios. I did not expect this," R'tas confessed to Thel as the walked down the long, stretching beach. Water gently lapped at the sand, always being pushed back. Night had fallen, and the lone moon of Earth hung full in the sky watching over them all like an immovable stone sentinel.
They had managed to lose the fiercely loyal Relg and Malkor a short while ago, who had followed them dutifully ever since they had all returned from Sangheilios. Thel appreciated it immensely, but sometimes it was nice to have time away from all the guards and formalities. Both he and R'tas were exhausted after days of hammering out a long and tiresome treaty with the various races who now shared this world.
The races of the Covenant had finally been officially freed, and each now possessed independence. Over the next few years, the Sangheili, Prophets and Jiralhanae would teach them how to govern and exist independently as a nation. The humans would be watching, but weren't to take a direct hand in it.
Earth had been divided amongst them all. Complete co-existence was impossible, and everyone knew it. The Sangheili had been granted most of 'Asia' and some of 'Africa', and the humans would retain Europe, America and other countries dotted around the planet. The rest would be divided amongst the rest, although the Prophets and Jiralhanae would remain on Placid Enrichment, yet still within the Sol system.
"Our people have lost many to the Parasite. Right now our primary concern is to repopulate ours species," Thel answered finally, reaching down and scooping up a handful of the white sand. It gently fell between the two gaps between his long, tapered fingers.
"I suppose that will be down to me, as Grand Kaidon of the Sangheili," R'tas grumbled, kicking at the ground. Thel turned to him.
"You are the best suited for the job, my brother. Not only do you possess the skill, intelligence and motivation to do so, but you are also a symbol. Respected by all."
R'tas sighed, looking up at the stars. The constellations on this planet were so different from the ones seen from Sanghelios.
"I know," he admitted with a heave of his shoulders, before turning his head left to face his friend. "You will stand by my side?"
"As the general of your armies, and as your brother, I shall," Thel replied, running a hand across the soft, strange feeling fabric of the regular clothes he was wearing. He had spent so long in the armour of the Arbiter that it had begun to feel like a second skin.
But to be the Arbiter was no longer a position of shame. It had been restored to its former glory, as a symbol and as general of the Sangheilian armies, such as they were.
"That is good to know. I do not lie to myself, Thel. The humans have not forgiven us, and never truly shall. We committed genocide upon their race and nearly destroyed their entire civillisation. There's no forgiving that. But I shall die before I allow our races to fall into war again. This I pledge."
"We can have a good life here, my brother."
"Yes," R'tas smiled, draping an arm around Thel's shoulder in a brotherly fashion as they walked. "And one day we shall find a new home. Perhaps as glorious as Sanghelios was."
Thel laughed, and looked out at the horizon, deep in thought as he stared at that impossibly straight point where water met the skies.
"Were it so easy."
Two months later
I am ridiculously bored, John realised as he woke up and stared outside the window of his home. Another gloriously beautiful day, and the happy chirping of birds rang clear through his bedroom.
How he hated it.
Groaning lethargically, John rose and propped himself up. His almost unnaturally soft duvet covers threatened to suffocate him. He was used to thin mattresses, rough, scratching sheets and the violent swaying of a ship.
He reluctantly swung his legs over the side of his bed, and stood up. Walking over to the mirror, he examined his reflection in the large mirror.
Had anyone seen him on a dark night, they would have walked in the other direction. Hell, they'd probably do it in the day too.
His ghostly pale skin was a criss-cross of networking scars and torn, discoloured tissue. His large, powerful hands were as rough as leather, and his body rippled with muscle that no normal man could attain. His eyes were sunken, dark pits. Added to his incredibly tall stature and he made for a terrifying sight.
John knew that he barely constituted as human in appearance. In the military it hadn't mattered so much; hell, he'd spent most of his time in MJOLNIR armour anyway. But to the rest of humanity and otherwise, he was a freak of nature.
He threw on a custom-tailored dressing gown, eased into a pair of bland, grey slippers, and opened the door of his bedroom.
The rest of the house confronted him. It was large, modern; perfect really. Everything anyone could ever want was at his beck and call.
Except he wasn't 'anyone.' He was a Spartan.
Retirement wasn't all it was cracked up to be. But he was so tired of war and losing people that he'd quit active service in the UNSC, at the recommendation of various psychologists who'd informed him that being the last of his kind might be detrimental to his mental state if he remained in the UNSC any longer. They'd given him a fitting party, a hoard of honourary medals, and had given him this house and a very generous pension.
All very nice, but absolutely boring.
Cortana of course was not allowed to go into retirement. And even if she was John knew she wouldn't anyway. AIs like her needed the military and the excitement which came with it.
John was quickly realising that he did too.
But he couldn't go back. His Spartans were all gone, and there was nothing left for him in the UNSC. He'd only go back if he were needed.
One, two, three, John counted monotonously as he descended down the staircase of his home, trailing a hand across the gleaming banister.
"Sol Newsnet," he called out at he reached the foot of the staircase. The large holoscreen leaped to life.
"-well it's the first Presidential election in over a hundred years, so of course everyone is nervous. The military government is all people have known their entire lives. Reverting back to a democracy will be a startling change," a reporter spoke as she stood outside of the UEG congress building. Guards were watching her closely. John walked around the holoscreen, observing the scene from every angle.
"Definitely. It's only been a few months since the devastation caused by the Flood, and obviously humanity is still recovering. Are we truly in any kind of state to be voting?" the anchor asked the reporter, and after a few seconds she replied.
"Recovery has been moving along at a swift pace, and the elections aren't for a few more months yet. I'm more concerned about the agendas of some of the parties. Particularly the ones promoting alien segregation. In this reporter's honest opinion, they should get off Earth and find their own damn planet."
"Yes, I'm in agreement with you there. It's been just over a year since the Covenant war ended, and I think the UNSC has forgiven them far too quickly. Hopefully the new government will amend-"
John turned the television off in disgust. Whatever happened to unbiased journalism?
Moving into the gym, he threw on some a loose vest and shorts, putting his dressing gown to one side. He quickly dropped to the ground and did one hundred press ups; a light work out, but he wasn't in the mood for vigorous training that morning. Moving over to the gravity-adjuster in the room, he turned the dial back down from 300% to the standard 100%. Throwing his dressing gown back on, he left the gym.
He walked into the kitchen and snapped his fingers at the kettle sitting in the corner.
"Boil," he ordered, and immediately it came to life and began to heat up the purified water within. Grabbing a cup from a cupboard, he reached into his fridge and pulled out a bottle of milk. He noticed that it was almost depleted. Pressing a few buttons on the fridge door, he ordered a new one.
Within a minute he was sitting on his lush sofa with a steaming warm mug of coffee. A paper-back book - a rarity these days - sat on the table. Master Chief, the book was simply titled. Ambiguous, but John was sure that everyone knew who it was referring to. The book had been published about a month ago, and was an attempt at gathering every piece of information known about him and the Spartan program into one compliment.
The sheer amount of errors in it made for an amusing read. The author seemed convinced that he had been grown in a secret ONI lab, and was half-man half-machine, like a Terminator from the old 20th century movie.
Everyone had moved on. Thel was serving as General and ambassador for the Sangheili, and was working on strengthening his people with Grand Kaidon R'tas Vadum'. They kept in touch, and had met a few times in the past few months, but it wasn't the same. Cortana was serving on the UNSC Hastings with Admiral Cole, who was busy attempting to rout out the insurrection sparked by Eden. John had been tempted to re-enlist solely to hunt after that miserable bastard. Doctor Halsey, Johnson and Mendez had seemingly vanished; he hadn't heard from any of them in months. The Didact had gone off on his attempt to find survivors of his species, leaving 343 Spark behind.
He smiled as he remembered a conversation he and Spark had had a few weeks ago.
"Well Spark, there it is as I promised. London Bridge," John had said, pointing at the hundreds of years old structure in the distance, at contrast with the ultra-modern skyscrapers which made up London's skyline. Spark had been silent for a few moments.
"But... it's not falling down," he had finally replied in a disappointed tone, drooping slightly. John had laughed.
"It wouldn't be a very good bridge if it was."
"Irrelevant. The song lied, Reclaimer. That is absolutely unacceptable. Who created it? He must be punished at once."
"I'm fairly sure that whoever devised the song is long dead, Spark," John smiled.
"Semantics," Spark had grumbled, before turning away.
John took a sip of coffee, and laughed softly to himself as he remembered the humourous scene. Despite the fact that he'd tried to kill him twice, John found that he rather loved the eccentric little monitor. The last he'd known Spark was helping the scientists at the Voi Portal unlock it's mysteries. According the the monitor, the Portal had merely been an extension of infrastructure that was already there.
The prevailing theory was that buried deep beneath Earth was a network of Precursor tunnels. And with humanity being their descendants, hopefully they'd be able to unlock its secrets.
John rose the cup to his lips again when-
Knock, knock, knock.
The heavy pounding on his door grounded to a halt after the third knock. John had already reacted to it by the end of the first, throwing down his coffee and running to the mantelpiece on the other side of the room. With a deft, unconscious movement, he checked that it was loaded and began to advance on the door, still in his dressing gown. He peered around the door.
A dark shadowy figure stood behind it.
With stealthy grace, he ascended up the staircase, being careful not to let the figure behind the door see him as he did so. Finding an open window, he opened it and climbed down, utitlising his Spartan athleticism. Once he was on the floor, he began to move around his house to where the man was standing behind his door.
"Maybe he isn't in," a voice murmured. John frowned, pausing.
"He's in," another assured. Two of them. Simple enough. And even if there were more, John would be able to handle them easily even if he didn't have a pistol in his hand. He waited a few moments, and swung out of cover.
"On the ground!" he shouted, firing a shot in the air before aiming the pistol at them. The two men swung around, startled.
"Master Chief!" one of them squeaked, before staring at his dressing gown with no little perplexity. John stared at them both closely, and groaned when he noticed the insignia on their uniforms. A shuttle some metres away bore the same symbol.
"ONI," was all he said, reluctantly lowering the pistol. "What do you want?"
The two men from ONI recomposed themselves, still a little unnerved by John's sudden and complete ambush of them. Sweat trailed down their foreheads.
"We have a proposition for you, Master Chief-"
"I'm not in the military anymore. My name is John," the Spartan replied, voice taking on a hard edge. The first ONI officer gulped noticeably.
"Of course. I apologise," he answered hastily, his words ascending into a crescendo at the end of his sentence.
"We want you to train some recruits, Master Chief," the second ONI officer cut in, saving his terrified companion from having to go on. John considered them for a moment, as a strong breeze lapped against the soft edges of his dressing gown.
"No," he replied, intending to head back into his house. The second ONI officer actually worked up the courage to hold out an arm, trying to stop him. John paused, and stared sideways at him.
"Please... John. You haven't even heard who these recruits are yet."
"Very well. Enlighten me," John replied dryly.
"They're Spartans, John. Or they soon will be, with your guidance."
It took a few seconds for the words to sink in. Then the ramifications of the words sank in, and John blinked. He stared incredulous at the ONI officer.
"... Spartans?" he asked dumbly, still in disbelief. The man nodded, sweat-drenched mustache bouncing a little as he did so.
"A whole new class. Spartan IVs," the ONI officer enthused, and the other finally found his voice again.
"The naming of the class was a very hard decision, but I think we reached an incredibly imaginative outcome," he smiled sarcastically, in a way which was very unlike ONI. John was still trying to come to terms with it.
"Let me get this straight. You want me to train a new class of Spartans?"
"Yes, John. All of them kids made orphans by the Covenant and Flood. The technology is better than ever. We're confident that the survival rate will be 100%. And the fact of the matter is that humanity needs Spartans. You've proven that countless times."
He's right. Forcing children to become super-soldiers is definitely morally wrong, but the fact of the matter is that he's right. Humanity needs Spartans... I[/i] need Spartans. I don't want to be alone.[/i]
"Very well. I'll need to go and grab some of my-"
"There's no need," the ONI officer with the moustache cut in, beaming as he heard John accept his offer. "Everything you'll need will be provided for you. And the sooner we leave the better; the location of the training of these Spartans is completely top secret."
"Where is it?" John asked, curiousity getting the better of him. The elderly ONI officer with the moustache looked around with paranoia, before answering.
"Harvest," he replied in a whisper. John frowned.
"But Harvest was glassed!"
As they approached the shuttle, the large door in the side swung open, revealing a very big surprise.
"Ah, Chief!" Mendez cried out. "It's about time you got here. I'm getting cramp in my legs."
"Well ain't that a damn shame? Soon as we get to Harvest we'll make sure you have a nice long nap, Franklin," Sergeant Johnson replied sarcastically, cigar predictably wedged between his teeth. John did a double take.
"What are you two doing here?" he asked, laughing as he climbed in the shuttle next to them. The door slid shut, enclosing them in the slightly claustrophobic space.
"I trained your class, I trained the SIIIs, and I'm not going to miss this," Mendez explained, accepting a Sweet-Williams from Johnson and lighting it. John hated smoke, but was too pleased to care. He turned to Johnson for an explanation as to why he was with them, who shrugged.
"Eh. I was getting bored. I decided that training Spartans might be fun."
Mendez banged on the metal separating the passenger compartment from the pilot's. He received another bang from the other side in reply. The shuttle began to rise from the ground, and John felt that reassuring sense of vertigo he always had when taking off.
"Here we go again," Mendez grinned, chomping down on his cigar. Johnson laughed, and then stopped suddenly.
"Why are you in a dressing gown?"
"Oh. That. It's complicated."
"I'll bet," Johnson grunted. John laughed, and reclined in the chair, looking outside the window of the shuttle as it drew away from Earth, and prepared to head to greener pastures. "By the way Chief, there's something you may like to know."
"These Spartans are going to have a teacher. A smart AI, like you had."
"Who do you think? Cortana!"
John simply sat there, a grin still stretched across his face. Cortana and he would be working together again, and there would be more Spartans in the galaxy. Everything he could ever want was being given to him. It would be tough work, but ultimately satisfying.
So much for a quiet retirement.
November 11th, 2554 (military calender)
ONI Section III
Classification: TOP SECRET, CODE-WORD
Channel Frequency: Heavily Encrypted
Subject: Contact from Mendicant Bias
Forwarding Officer: CODENAME: SURGEON
Receiver: Major John "Master Chief" 117. Location [REDACTED] Status [REDACTED]
Officer's Note: Master Chief. ONI refused to forward this transmission to you, citing it as a security risk. I however remember the sacrifices you made for humanity, and at the very least I owe you this.
With heartfelt, undying gratitude,
I know your Office of Naval Intelligence will probably intercept this message. However, I trust that it will somehow end up in your hands.
I apologise if you feel that I left rather in a rather abrupt fashion after Sangheilios. However I was granted a chance to take the Flood and leave to help them begin anew, and decided to seize it before anyone could reverse the decision. As I'm sending you this we're currently in that indeterminable realm between your galaxy and another. By the time it reaches you we may have reached our destination, whatever that is.
The Flood are in stasis right now. Well, they're in that primitive frozen hibernation of yours which functions like stasis anyway. I'm all alone on this ship, and it's given me time to think. About many things.
I like to think that I have atoned for my sins. Working in collusion with the Gravemind to destroy the Forerunners was a vile, wretched thing, and I will remember it with a bitter taste in my metaphorical mouth always. I will continue to spend the rest of my life making up for what I did, but it will never be enough.
I'm looking at a Flood infection form right now, frozen in cryogenics. I see them differently now to how I once did. Where I once saw a miserable, monstrous creature, I now see an intricate thing of beauty and possibility. I see ways to adapt it; to make it a gatherer of food or a healer rather than a dominator. The Flood shall no longer commit acts of evil. This I swear.
Of course, I shan't be controlling them as my... predecessor did. They possess individuality, and whilst they will always be a hive-mind, I will serve as their guide rather than their ruler.
But listen to me, rambling on about myself. I hope you are doing well, John, and that you recover from the horrific acts my adopted children committed prior to my parentage.
Gods, listen to me. Paternal instincts keep crawling into my speech.
In addition to the Gravemind's control over the Flood, I also appear to have assimilated his memories. There is not a unit of data measurement large enough to convey just how much information is stored here. I have dispersed it throughout the entirety of my ships and still it threatens to overwhelm me. I have probed at the edges of the memories, but daren't delve too deeply into them lest I lose myself.
I am learning more about your ancestors, John. The Precursors. The things they could do... it was like magic, John. Far beyond my comprehension.
But not yours. After all, you are them. And one day you shall reach that height again. Your world is the key, John. I shan't say more than that; you must do this on your own, not have it given to you on a silver planet.
I hope that your people and the others can co-exist in harmony, John. You may find it hard to forgive, but one day it must happen, or you shall be forever caught in a cycle of war and destruction.
And that brings me to another topic. You need to destroy the Halo array. It may be a technological marvel, but such a cataclysmic weapon should not be allowed to remain. Raze the rings to the ground, John. The fact that I'm saying this will probably be reason enough for ONI to not forward this message to you, but I know you'll receive it. And I know you'll get it done.
This universe is a wondrous place John, but it is also a very hostile one. You must all work quickly to rebuild and strengthen. The Precursor empire stretched throughout the universe, John. It almost definitely made a few very powerful enemies in it's time. If you ever find yourself in need of help, call for us, and we shall come. It may take years, but hold out and we will come, John. This I also swear to you.
I will continue to stay in contact with you, John. Send a message back to these co-ordinates, if you are able to with your technology. It will most likely take years to arrive, but I can wait. AIs can be very patient, you know.
When I first contacted you on the Ark, I spoke with shame. But now I speak with pride, John. I helped liberate the galaxy of the greatest threat it had ever known, and I am now giving its thralls a second chance.
And so this time I am pleased when I say:
I am Mendicant Bias. And this is what I have done.
Thus concludes Halo 3: Insurrection