"Control, this is Sierra Oh-nine-two. Objective Lima is in sight."
"Roger, Oh-nine-two," the anonymous voice of the Spartan control officer replied. "Proceed with care."
Jason grunted with derision. With care. No respect, no recognition, only some Academy kid who's never held a gun telling me to take care. He had, however, grown used to ONI's, and as a whole the UNSC's treatment of Spartans over the course of the war. They treated the Spartans like costly machines, but for now, Jason was content to be their weapon. There is a war going on, after all.
The Spartan sighed, and clicked open his comm. "Roger," he said, none of his vexation escaping through his voice. "Oh-nine-two out."
Jason patted his belt, making sure the storage matrix was still there, and dashed across the street, through the shattered front door of an abandoned apartment building. He clicked on his helmet spotlight and waded through the dark, cautious of the slightest sound. This part of the city had fallen weeks ago, all humans killed or evacuated. Scouts reported Covenant patrols still in the area, though, and that was a significant cause for worry. Especially considering what ONI had left behind.
The lobby of the building was already falling into a state of disrepair, a fine coating of dust covering ruined furniture and torn carpeting. Jason's eyes darted to the stairwell, but he dismissed that option. Too many angles of exposure, too many chances for an ambush.
Instead, Jason's eyes fell upon a set of lifts, their operating lights dim. Whenever a part of the city fell it was cut off from the main power grid, and there was no telling how reliable the backup generators were. He didn't intend to take the lift, however. He made his way swiftly to the stairwell, appearing as nothing but a discolored shadow in the dusk.
Sticking his fingers between the crack in the lift's door, Jason spread it open, and poked his head into an empty shaft. His spotlight swept through the darkness until he found what he was looking for: a maintenance ladder, off to the side.
The Spartan grabbed a rung and yanked, and satisfied it could hold his weight, mounted the ladder two rungs at a time. He brought up a map of the building on his HUD. Objective Lima, one of many ONI messes in need of cleanup in the ruins of the city, was conveniently only three stories up, no doubt by design.
Within moments, the Spartan had reached the floor. With a little effort he leaned from the ladder to the lift doorway, barely cracking it open. He stuck an optic probe through, receiving the image of a long hallway lined with doors. Its condition was a little better than the lobby—there was less dust, and most of the doors were intact. That's good, Jason thought. The objective should be untouched.
The Spartan withdrew the probe and replaced it in the proper pouch, when he heard a sound. At first it was a rustle and clatter, followed by an excited yipping. Shit
Jason checked his HUD again. Several contacts appeared on his motion tracker and the Spartan compared them in relation to the objective. He closed his eyes and sighed. He'd need to pass right by them. So much for an undetected grab.
The Spartan hung silently from the wall, unslingning his battle rifle one-handed and visually checking it over. Silencer and scope secure, magazine snug and full. Jason knew the weapon was fine, but the process cleared his mind. He'd have to be careful to get by the patrol. Checking the hallway once more, the Spartan made sure it was clear, and, once again slinging his rifle, pried the door open.
Keeping an eye on his motion tracker, Jason climbed through the lift door and into the hallway, weapon ready. He moved silently until he neared an open door, light pouring out, and as before slid his probe around the corner. Inside was a patrol of Grunts and Jackals, their attention focused on a representative of each species struggling over what looked like a blender.
Jason again checked his motion tracker. All traces picked up appeared to be coming from the one room. One grenade would have silenced the lot of them, maybe two, but an unresponsive patrol would bring unwanted attention, and ONI didn't know for sure how many Covenant were in this part of the city. Satisfied that he went unnoticed, the Spartan moved on, finally reaching his destination.
It was an ordinary door, like all the others except for the fact that it was mostly intact, and its keypad still glowed. Quickly punching in the combination, Jason slid inside. The room he entered, however, was far from as ordinary as the door.
Lights flicked on to reveal a comfortable-looking apartment, littered with computer and communications equipment, papers strewn across the floor, and several handguns conspicuously left on a coffee table.
"Greetings, Spartan Oh-nine-two," a female voice said from the air, and Jason smiled, turning to a tall ghostly figure of yellow light floating above the coffee table among glowing dust motes.
"Hello, Eta," he said, scanning the mess for anything important that may have been overlooked. He shook his head. "ONI sure left in a hurry."
"Indeed," the AI replied. "I've been able to clean up after my operators, and cleared all sensitive data, but there is still me here."
"That's why they sent me, Eta," Jason said, allowing some cheer to creep into his voice. "You've done well, regardless."
"Thank you, oh-nine-two," Eta replied, her hologram appearing noticeably brighter as the Spartan moved to her memory core, a long and low case of computing and storage equipment encased in a plain metal shell. "I've had little to do since soon after the evacuation, and I was beginning to worry I'd be left behind."
Jason slung his rifle and removed the data matrix from his belt. "Don't be," he replied. You're not just equipment, as much as ONI believes it. The Spartan plugged the matrix into the core's access slot, next to a small keypad, and prepped it for storage. His head whipped around, though, when Eta shouted a warning.
"Spartan, move!" she said, and without thinking, Jason dived to the floor and readied his battle rifle in one movement, a flash of green splashing into the core where he'd been moments before. At the doorway to the safehouse stood a Jackal and a pair of Grunts, the plasma pistols of each glowing. Jason fired a pair of quick bursts at the heads of the Grunts, sending brain matter and skull fragments flying. Too quick, though, the Jackal had covered itself with its shield and returned fire, forcing the Spartan behind a couch for cover.
Jason glanced up to see two more Grunts and another two Jackals spread out near the apartment's entry foyer, two shielded Jackals covering the Grunts and their unshielded comrade. The Spartan did a quick tally of the aliens he'd seen in the other apartment, and realized they were all there. Good, he thought. No surprises.
Jason slung his battle rifle for the silenced submachine gun on his hip, and once again popped his head out. The aliens fired into and above the couch, but the Spartan was already moving. Jason slid to the side of the couch, spraying fire below the coffee table at the unshielded legs of the Jackals and Grunts. One of the birdlike Jackals fell forwards with a shriek, and taking the advantage, Jason poured fire into the unguarded Grunts and unshielded Jackal, all three falling with squeals and shrieks of pain. The last Jackal covered its head with its shield and knelt, and the Spartan leapt forward, collapsing the Jackal's shield and skull with a pair of swift blows.
The whole encounter hadn't lasted a minute, and Jason rushed back to the core to check the damage. A smaller hologram of Eta appeared above the construction, frowning down at the Spartan.
"Dammit," Jason said under his breath. The data matrix, slot, and keypad were all fused into a mass of metal and plastic by the plasma round. There was no hope for saving Eta, Jason knew, not now. ONI's AI cores were designed for security, with only one hardpoint for data removal. It'd take several techs a few hours to crack it open and remove Eta safely.
Jason looked up to find the hologram still frowning, and switched his helmet's external speakers off.
"Control, this is Sierra Oh-nine-two," he said. "Enemy patrol down at objective Lima; package's core was damaged. There's no possibility for immediate extraction. Operational security is compromised." Jason knew the answer to his next question, but asked it anyways. "Will retrieval be possible at a later date?"
There was a pause, followed by the voice of Control. "Negative, Oh-nine-two. Initiate shutdown of the package."
"Control, I'll volunteer to return," Jason said, again glancing at Eta. She's not just equipment, he thought. Spartans take care of their own: marines, civvies, even AIs.
There was another pause, much shorter than the former. "Negative, Spartan." Jason bristled. From control's mouth the word sounded like an insult, lacking the kindness in Eta's voice. "Covenant have or will become aware of the package. Shut it down. Out."
Jason nodded stiffly to himself and rose, Eta's ghostly gaze following him. He switched his speakers back on. "I'm sorry, Eta," he said simply.
The AI nodded, as if to say it was alright. The frown, however, remained on her face.
Jason shook his head. It's not alright, but I still have to do it, he thought. "Eta, code file access Alpha-Foxtrot-48939."
"Acknowledged, Spartan. Fail-safe code verified." Eta's ghostly form flickered, and her glow began to dim. "Keep safe, Oh-nine-two."
Jason nodded grimly behind his helmet. Equipment
The Spartan removed a grenade from his belt, the device unnaturally heavy in his hand.
"I will, Eta. Thanks."