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The MARINER Directive by CaptainRaspberry

Secrets Best Hidden - The MARINER Directive
Date: 15 August 2010, 2:53 pm

1. Secrets Best Hidden

1359 Hours, 2 February 2542 (Military Calendar)/
UNSC His Glittering Eye -- high orbit around Reach

The Office of Naval Intelligence was not the public's favorite organization, but even within the various departments of what everyone assumed was a shady, clandestine network, there were pariahs. Shane Conway was well aware of the stigma against his own kind: Section Two was spat upon by the directors, agents, and inter-office memos as a pointless drain on the budgets.

Conway was one of the worst offenders: a public affairs specialist. The purpose of his job was to lie to the public, make them think the Covenant's inexorable march through the inner colonies was no more than a brushfire conflict. At any point in time, he was falsifying victories in battles that never happened, standing over the shoulder of an artist as he "glorified" war photos. He was surprised the glares other ONI personnel were giving him hadn't burned through his uniform yet.

But it was a job, and not the front lines. It suited him fine.

Given his status as "official jackass," he also had been surprised when the order came for him to evacuate his cushy, secure office and report to a prowler in orbit. Maybe he had finally pissed off the wrong people? A blood-stain had slipped through, or the public had finally seen through his utter bullshit.

His escort, a thick-necked Marine armed with a Battle Rifle, waved at a door up ahead. "Inside," he said.

When do I get my cigarette and blindfold? Conway wanted to say it. Instead, he just nodded and stepped through the door as it automatically irised away.

The room was blank: no insignia or decoration. There was a square, black-polymer table with a reflective surface. It was flanked by two chairs, one of which was occupied. A man sat there, staring at Conway as the door shut behind him. Physically the man was unremarkable, but he had an aura. Despite himself, Conway felt sweat prickling on his neck.

"Sit down, Lieutenant," the man said. As he did so, Conway caught sight of the Army Colonel nova on his lapel. "Do you like your job?"

A million snappy comebacks dashed through Conway's mind, but he didn't dare let them out. He was intimidated by this colonel, this unknown quantity. He had seen some twentieth-century cartoons as part of his training, and though the physical resemblance to Snidely Whiplash was passing at best, there was still a sinister feeling hanging in the air.

This man was a back door and dark alley personified.

"Sir, yes sir."

The colonel regarded him, apparently unimpressed with the answer. "No, Lieutenant Conway, you don't."


"You don't like it at all," he continued. "It's unpatriotic and a waste of your otherwise cunning talents. In fact, I believe you have submitted dozens of complaints to that effect to the directors ever since you received your assignment to Section Two."

It was becoming unbearably hot under Conway's collar. He had never submitted a complaint before in his life. Making up lies on Reach meant not being deployed on other, more dangerous worlds. "Sir, I --"

The colonel put his hand on the table. Complaint forms materialized on the surface -- which Conway now understood to be a three-dimensional projector -- written and stamped as from his desk, replete with his signature at the bottom. Many of them.

"So, given your eagerness to contribute effectively to the war effort, you will be receiving a reassignment." The forms flickered and vanished, replaced by a single folder icon. It hovered directly in front of Conway, and was described underneath by only one line:


The colonel stood up. "Take your time reading it, Lieutenant, as this is the only time you will be allowed to view it before you reach your new destination. We'll be departing in two hours, and you should be in your cryo-tube by then."

Conway watched the colonel leave, stunned into silence. After the door had irised closed, he looked numbly back at the folder. With a wave of his hand, it opened, and he read the first line:

"Welcome to the Beta-5 Division. Your new codename is MARINER."

1039 Hours, 18 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Tropicas, Pearl -- three klicks from main battle line

Malcolm-059 watched the flurries of snow settle outside the Pelican dropship as it landed. The thump barely carried through his thick armor. He had read the planetary report on his way down: a near-Earth type world, it had required little terraforming to become habitable to humans. The only notable hardship was the climate, currently exiting its Ice Age, which had forced the colonists to adapt to the harsh environment.

From what he had seen during the Pelican's descent, they had done well. The city of Tropicas was less like a series of buildings and more like one large, interconnected structure. Walkways with retractable covers crossed between buildings like a cracked pane of glass, and the maps described an intricate series of tunnels below the surface. Most of the power came from geothermal vents nearby -- coincidentally, the reason why he was here.

He rose and stepped off the end of the troop-bay, noting the relaxing groan of steel as his considerable weight no longer stressed the dropship. Between his hyperdense musculature, reinforced skeleton, and his half-ton MJOLNIR Mark-IV armor, Malcolm wouldn't exactly be allowed into the featherweight division of the UNSC's boxing league.

The personnel dotting the landing pad gaped. Malcolm had become used to this reaction, though he noted with some disappointment that a lone Spartan didn't seem to attract the same degree of slack-jawed staring as a whole team.

He quickly scanned their uniforms until he had pinpointed the highest rank present: a gunnery sergeant with a crate of MREs clutched in his hands. Malcolm walked up and nodded. "I'm looking for Colonel Havis."

The sergeant pointed over his shoulder towards one of the skyways. "Next building over."

"Thank you, sergeant." Malcolm turned and moved off, magazines and other small items rattling on crates and tables as he passed. People moved quickly out of his way; he didn't blame them for being surprised, confused, maybe even pensive. Few people had heard of the top-secret SPARTAN program, and even fewer had had experiences with them. Malcolm was no longer fazed by their ignorance.

Rather, he was concerned. He had been diverted from his original deployment -- his team -- engaging the Covenant on the planet Miridem. It had been so last minute he only had time to say goodbye to Sheila-101 before he was hustled onto a Mako Corvette bound for Pearl.

Now here he was, alone. Spartans were never meant to be alone; maybe stranded, cut-off, derelict.

But never alone.

With a few more directions, he found himself in the battlefield command center. Unlike most other areas, the operations personnel didn't have time to gawk at the seven-foot-tall behemoth that just walked in. A few glanced up from their stations, but if they were surprised they didn't show it. They couldn't afford the distraction.

One woman, however, gestured impatiently to Malcolm. She looked old, but it could have been an effect of the unsightly burns on her face, probably caused by plasma. Though the skin around them was wrinkled and deformed, her eyes burned with an emerald and sage determination.

Malcolm saluted. "Sir! SPARTAN-Zero-Five-Nine, reporting for duty! Sir!"

Havis returned the salute. "Good to see you, soldier. How was your trip?"

"Sir, nothing to speak of, sir."

"At ease, Spartan, before you strain something." Malcolm relaxed his stance slightly, but maintained the proper posture. He was sure nobody could see through his gold-tinted visor, but opportunity didn't excuse misbehavior. His eyes remained locked forward.

"Were you briefed in transit?"

"No, sir. I only received a dossier containing planetary information and basic information on Covenant activity."

"Right," she growled, glancing at a nearby captain, who found something immediately more interesting to occupy his time. "Come over here, I'll fill you in." She led Malcolm to a nearby briefing table, already displaying a soft-light hologram of a real-time situation at the main battle line.

"Three klicks away, we're barely holding the Covenant back from the city limits. Given our supply situation and the daily loss of life, we're estimating full line dissolution by the end of the year. Maybe sooner, if you can't accomplish your mission."

The map changed. Suddenly, Malcolm was looking at a dig site -- a rather large dig site, judging by the scale hovering on the display. Covenant mining equipment was set up around the edges, with what appeared to be regular supply lines leading to the site. There was an obvious defensive ring, as well as several other structures that he had seen in the past and he identified as some manner of basic support. His orders usually were to blow things up, not figure out what they were for.

"At first," continued Havis, "we thought they were just trying to pull up some extra resources. This entire area is a geothermal hotspot. But when they set up camp, they demolished the power plant already there and started digging their own hole. Seems a little counterintuitive to an easy resource grab, huh?"

Malcolm said nothing.

"ONI now believes they're smashing up against us trying to get to Roland, a city six klicks north east of us. They've already attempted landings there, but the anti-air defenses have kept them out of arm's reach."

"What's in Roland, sir?"

The colonel pursed her lips. "Nothing I'm at liberty to discuss. Suffice to say, however, there may be other methods of access." She tapped the map, holograms shivering as her fingers passed through. "They'll be using the vents to try getting under us and reach their objective in Roland."

Malcolm studied the map. An infiltration mission, breaking through a heavily-defended Covenant position in order to sabotage their operations. He could understand that fewer numbers would draw less attention, but...

"Something on your mind, son?"

His head snapped to the colonel. She was looking at him. "Sir? Nothing, sir."

"I brought you here to do your job, which as I understand is damn tough. If you have any concerns, I want to hear them."

"Sir." He hesitated. "Why isn't the rest of my team here?"

Havis sighed and pulled lightly at her hair. Its growth seemed uneven; Malcolm wondered what the true extent of her scarring was. "Truth be told, Petty Officer, I requested the entirety of your team. You're the only one ONI was willing to spare."

That was unusual, but then again almost nothing about this mission made any sense. Spartans were almost never deployed alone: as much as they were walking tanks, they still relied on each other.

"I've taken up enough of your time, Spartan," she said, saluting. He returned it automatically. "Hit the armory, get kitted up, and be on the helipad in ten. You'll be inserted via Falcon about two klicks out from your target."

"Yes sir."

1843 Hours, 18 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- Covenat perimeter, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

Malcolm quickly lost count of how many times he saw a Jackal patrol go by. He had been in his observation position for about six hours, undetected. On his back, a Hound-model radio interceptor hummed almost imperceptibly, a sensation he felt more than heard. This infiltration was strictly reconnaissance, and as such he had eschewed his normal choices of weaponry for a silenced M6 and a combat knife.

A wire ran from the transmitter on the Hound to the back of his helmet so he could listen in on the Covenant BattleNet. ONI's current translation protocols were atrocious, but they were better than nothing. Malcolm's ears were filled with unintelligible chatter with a gender-neutral voice attempting to translate. Early on he had considered just disconnecting it and letting it archive the aliens' communications for the spooks at ONI, but now he was starting to understand the tone of conversation, if nothing else.

There was a deep, baritone voice that resonated across the BattleNet, and whenever it sounded he could various responses. Likely a commanding officer. He double-checked that he was recording.

Far away on the other lip of the dig site, a Scarab walked across the edge, seeking a sloping path down to the point of interest. Malcolm had already seen a second one go down, heard its plasma drill firing. A few times in the war the Covenant had turned the titanic mining machines against human forces, wielding them as massive weapons platforms. Each time they had been difficult to kill. If his infiltration went wrong, the Spartan knew that they would be a tough obstacle to overcome.

Another Jackal patrol came by and stopped, apparently chatting. They faced away from him, sharing his observation of the Scarab as it began a cautious descent. The angle of the dig site walls was steep, indicating a fast dig. Whatever was under here, they were in a hurry to reach it. He checked his instinct to shoot the aliens, even though it would have been easy: a silent weapon, two targets close but not paying attention to each other; on any other day it would be an ideal assassination.

Instead he sat stock-still, head bowed slightly so the fading light had less of a chance to reflect on his visor and give away his position.

Something blinked.

Not daring to move, he searched with his eyes. The flickering motion came from inside his own helmet; status lights were winking on and off, burning green lights in the shadow of his post. For a moment he was confused and irritated. A malfunction here and now would be problematic. There was no way for him to do field repairs without alerting the two nearby sentries, and killing them would buy him only a few minutes. If he were to do anything, he'd have to wait for them to leave and then retreat to a safe distance.

It dawned on him that these status lights were coming from his communications channel. Not errors, but status lights meant for voiceless communication with his squad.

But they were worlds away.

He watched as the distant Scarab seemed to slip on its descent, port foreleg swinging wide from a step. A stream of smoke appeared to come from the offending limb, followed by a small explosion from the deck.

Malcolm activated his video recorder. The two Jackals were fully attentive on the distant spectacle now, and one unslung a beam rifle from its back. The Spartan silently drew his M6 and shot them both in the back of the head, then moved forward and took up the alien weapon. ONI's SmartLink software was still shaky on acquiring Covenant weapon signals, and he had to wait a full five seconds before it synced up.

He zoomed in on the Scarab, watching as the ponderous machine tipped and fell, more smoke trails billowing from the head and body. Covenant soldiers were converging on it, some with weapons and others carrying devices -- Malcolm presumed -- used for fire control.

Through the smoke and growing azure flames the Spartan picked out movement away from the downed vehicle. He reflexively tracked it and caught four shapes as they moved quickly through the smoke. They were hard to see; their profiles kept changing as they moved into the surrounding area, but for one brief moment there was a familiar shade of green and tinted orange visors.

Malcolm immediately dropped the alien weapon and retreated back the way he came. The Covenant would be on high alert now, and though most of the attention would be on the downed Scarab, it wouldn't be long before they started questioning why two sentries on the far approach weren't responding. He had to fall back to the Falcon and scrub this attempt.

As he moved, he couldn't shake the thought that plagued his mind.

There are more Spartans on Pearl.

Everything In Threes - The MARINER Directive
Date: 26 August 2010, 10:19 pm

2. Everything In Threes

2316 Hours, 18 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Tropicas, Pearl -- secure location

Upon his return, Malcolm-059 had reported his findings to the colonel. She dismissed him, sending him for food and sack time. He had undone his armor with the help of the local techs, stored it in secure bins -- even surrounded by Marines, Section Three didn't want his equipment accessed by unauthorized personnel -- and fallen asleep. Not two hours later, he found himself awoken by a staff sergeant and told to report for debriefing.

This has to be a mistake, he thought. I was already debriefed by Colonel Havis.

Still, he didn't object. It was possible that a committee wanted to review the data he submitted and required his personal input. That was known to happen.

It was not the case now, however. He was led into a small room, featureless except for a table and two chairs. A man in a black uniform sat before him, no name or rank identifiers except for a matching logo on his sleeves.

Malcolm automatically saluted. Only officers were allowed to wear the operative uniform of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

The man returned it. "That will be all, sergeant," he said to the escorting Marine. He left shortly. "Have a seat, Zero-Five-Nine."

As the Spartan eased himself onto the metal chair, it gave a short squeal of protest. He was reminded of disembarking from the Pelican earlier; it seemed not even unarmored could he avoid being a burden to furniture.

"My name is Lieutenant Sanforth," the operative continued. "I act as a liaison with Section Three, Beta-Five Division. I was asked by my superiors to review the data you submitted after your mission, and I've come to speak with you as a result of my analysis. Do you follow me?"

"Yes sir."

"Are you aware of Beta-Five?"

"No sir."

"Few are, and after you leave this room, you will pretend to the rest of the galaxy that you're not one of them. Everything we are about to discuss is considered classified, level Black. You won't mention a word from here to anyone. Not your superiors, not the guy who pours your coffee, not even to your fellow Spartans. Understand?"

"Yes sir."

The lieutenant slid a data pad across the table towards Malcolm, gesturing at it. The Spartan picked it up: it displayed a still frame from his surveillance video, the four shapes as they moved through the smoke, caught in an instant where their olive armor and orange visors were plain to see. He wanted to ask the obvious question, but he checked himself. The liaison wasn't here to satisfy the Spartan's curiosity.

"Do you recognize those individuals, Zero-Five-Nine?"

"No sir."

"You've never seen them before, encountered them prior to the Scarab crashing?"

Prior to when they crashed it? "No sir."

"Why didn't you pursue them after you caught sight of them?"

"Sir." That was a strange question. "My mission was recon only, not recon and recovery. I had also not been made aware of another Spartan team on Pearl, or that my mission was simultaneous with theirs. Had I remained or attempted pursuit, my own objective would have been compromised." There. He had gotten the idea out in the open. Not that anyone with any level of familiarity with the SPARTAN-II program wouldn't have made the connection, but now he only needed confirmation that they were what he thought.

Sanforth maintained eye contact. "You think they're Spartans, Zero-Five-Nine?" he asked at length.

"Yes sir."

"Well, you're half-right. And we never expected them to be on Pearl, either. They have their own objective to secure, and they were given" -- he hesitated, seeming at a loss for words -- "considerable leeway as to how they wanted to proceed. Still, my superiors have been concerned over their progress and want a status report. Until now we've been unable to contact them, and they're still operating in radio silence. We need you to rendezvous with them and report back what you find."

"What about my mission?"

"Your objective to stop the Covenant's progress is still primary, Spartan, but I'll need you to get in contact with them before you proceed. We're having a special high-power transceiver installed in your armor so you can radio me as soon as you have the information I need."

"Yes sir."

The lieutenant made no move to dismiss Malcolm. They sat a moment longer, staring each other down.

"You have a question for me, Zero-Five-Nine."

"Sir... who are they?"

"Their designation is Team Echo."

Echo. Malcolm fought to keep the shock off his face. His Spartans -- his brothers -- operated in teams with color-based designations: Red, Blue, Green, etc. More to the point, they were variable, changing based on situational requirements; the only two that were permanently assigned were Gray and Black, both of which were special operations.

But this new piece of information, no matter how insignificant it must have seemed to the lieutenant, was a treasure trove of intel for Malcolm. In fact, it brought an end to the speculation the Spartans endured whenever left alone for a long enough time: were there more of them out in the galaxy? Was there a second class of Spartans?

This was a definitive yes.

2325 Hours, 18 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Tropicas, Pearl -- Main Battle Line Command Center

"Lieutenant Sanforth" dismissed SPARTAN-059 with instructions to contact him after his newest objective was complete, using the keyword MARINER -- the lieutenant's Beta-5 codename.

After he was gone, Seamus stood and stretched. His muscles were aching and his brain felt heavy inside his skull: he had been, until just a few hours ago, several dozen lightyears away attending to a different matter entirely. With SPARTAN-III Beta Company performing so well out in the field, his superiors -- Colonel Ackerson in particular -- were eager to begin work on a third class. Seamus was involved with selecting candidates for the new Gamma Company when he received encrypted orders to come to Pearl and deal with a "potential leak."

He didn't realize the leak involved a missing team of Spartans.

The hallway was empty. Seamus made his way towards the top of the building, passing through the command center. No one stood in his way, only a few staring at his uniform. At last he found himself in an observation room looking out over the city. If one could ignore the columns of smoke and distant flashes of combat, it was a serene view.

His thoughts drifted back to Malcolm, and he clicked his teeth. From his briefing, the SPARTAN-IIs were a tragedy. Children, kidnapped from their homes and families, conscripted at the age of six to become the ultimate tool against the insurrections. At least the Spartans he was concerned with -- the Threes -- had been orphans. There was nowhere left for them to go.

The COM bud surgically planted behind his left ear chimed. Conway reached up and gave it a squeeze. "MARINER, go ahead."

"This is COALMINER. Secure channel alpha-alpha-niner."

Conway's neural interface buzzed. "Roger that, secure. Go ahead."

"Has contact been made?"

"Affirmative. I have confirmed that the subjects witnessed by Sierra Zero-Five-Nine are Team Echo. All four were visibly recorded. I've tasked the Two to get me a progress report."

"Can he be trusted?"

"Section Three trusted him to disrupt the Covenant presence here on Pearl. That's enough for now."

A pause. Conway wasn't sure if his contact was thinking it over, or if the Slipspace COM buoy was malfunctioning. "That's acceptable. Wetwork on Spartans never goes smoothly anyway."

"Roger that."

"Have you taken care of the recorded data?"

Conway reflexively put his hand in his pocket, feeling the smart-chip inside. "Please," he said, not bothering to hide his disdain. "I may only have been doing this for two years, but I was with ONI before that. I know how to secure data."

"Need I remind you, Captain, your role of liaison extends to the operation as a whole. This is only a fraction of the matter that requires your attention."

"Yes sir, I understand." He pulled his hand out of his pocket and massaged his temple. He was going to be jet-lagging hard over the next couple of days. "So long as the Covenant can't break Tropicas, our excavation in Roland should be secure... so long as they don't breach Hotel-One-Alpha. I haven't had time to catch up with the official Section Three on-site director yet."

"Understood. Keep me in the loop, MARINER. COALMINER out."

0643 Hours, 19 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- Covenant perimeter, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

Pale morning light was scything through the trees, prompting Malcolm to disengage his nightvision. There were few mountain ranges on Pearl -- a general lack of overt volcanic activity helped spur on the planet's reputation as an ice ball, not to mention larger tectonic plates than Earth which led to less buckling. Early scans had revealed the planet's crust was shot through with deposits of silicon, making the crust brittle and allowing the planet to release its core heat in low, inobstrusive geothermal vents.

None of this particularly mattered to Malcolm, except for the fact that no mountains meant no shadow to hide in. The newly-risen sun shone directly on him. In addition, the forest around him was waking up, and his motion tracker was being flooded with phantom signals: birds flitting from tree to tree, small rodents darting about underfoot. He keyed down its sensitivity, all the while cursing the need to do so. At its highest sensitivity, ONI boasted the latest software/hardware combination could detect fast-moving cloaked Elites. Malcolm didn't want to test it, but a part of him was eager to find out if they were right.

He was a little less than half a klick from the edge of the forest, where old Colonial Authority teams had made a large clearing to access the geothermal vent below -- where the Covenant currently made their home. This was also the general area where he had seen the other Spartans flee, disappearing into the brush.

This was not a reconnaissance patrol like last time. He was carrying an MA5B, an M7, and several grenades. After he made contact, his orders were to continue to his primary objective: stall the Covenant from accessing the geothermal vents.

Honestly, he thought to himself, Team Echo had already done a fantastic job. Without a Scarab, the Covenant's digging efforts were significantly damaged. He reminded himself that there was still another stomping around, and they'd likely be on higher alert.

Malcolm kept up his steady, quiet pace, keeping an eye on his motion tracker. No contacts. He swept his eyes back and forth across his path as he moved, carefully absorbing every detail. When a leaf moved, he was careful to make sure other leaves along the same vector did the same; otherwise, he was dealing with more than a gust of wind.

When the strike came, his only warning was a flash of green lights at the bottom of his visor. The communications channel was briefly alive with activity.

Two shapes seemed to come out of nowhere ahead of him. They moved fast, but the split-second alert provided by his COM system had been enough: Malcolm lashed out, getting a punch in below a golden visor, hitting his aggressor in the throat. The other had a combat knife drawn and brought it down in a stabbing motion; the force of the blow was enough for Malcolm to feel it, but it didn't penetrate his MJOLNIR armor.

Malcolm caught the other's arm and pulled, slamming his opponent to the ground. He held his grip, taking stock: whatever armor these Spartans were wearing, he could tell it was nothing he had ever seen. It captured environmental patterns from all around them and displayed them in a strange version of chameleon camouflage. His own gauntlet's color was currently being copied by the armor around his target's neck.

Other than that, he was struck by their size. All the SPARTAN-IIs, as a result of their modifications and ideal genetic profile, were in the neighborhood of seven feet tall; these Spartans were considerably less than that, about average height, if not shorter.

A shot rang out and the dirt by Malcolm puffed. His head snapped up to find two shapes in the trees above him. Like the two on the ground, they hadn't set off his motion detector. Both clutched weapons -- MA5K carbines, if he was correct.

"Get up slowly," said one, "and put your hands on the top of your head. No sudden moves."

Malcolm wondered if their response time was as good as his. He decided it wasn't worth testing right now. He did as directed, careful not to make it look like he was going for a weapon. His rifle was still secure on his back and the submachine gun on his hip.

The one below him got up and helped the other he had neutralized, who appeared shaky at first.

In the trees, the other spoke. A high voice, probably female. "Who are you?"

Malcolm looked directly at her. She was definitely smaller than any Spartan he had ever seen. "Petty Officer SPARTAN Zero-Five-Nine. And you?"

She hesitated slightly, the barrel of her weapon wavering. Her helmet twitched to one side briefly; Malcolm could only assume they were carrying on a conversation that he couldn't hear. He tongued the contact inside his helmet to cycle through radio frequencies, but couldn't pick anything up.

After a moment, her attention seemed to zero in on him again. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm on a mission from ONI," he replied. "The Covenant are accessing the geothermal vent nearby. I was sent in to disrupt their operations, whether they're trying to tunnel under Tropicas or just utilize the source of power."

One of the ones on the ground slapped the other on the shoulder, who shrugged off the blow. In the trees, the female Spartan continued regarding him. Their helmets were different than his, not with a linear visor and overhang. Theirs were more rounded and dull, less likely to catch light and offer a greater range of visibility, particularly overhead. Combined with their choice of armament, an Army-issue carbine, it wasn't likely that they were part of the normal Naval Special Weapons division.

Were they really Spartans?

At length, the female dropped out of the tree and attached her carbine to her back. The camouflage pattern vanished, revealing a very familiar shade of olive in a marginally recognizable shape. It was more streamlined than his Mark IV; he could only assume, given their kit, that they weren't meant to be seen.

"Chief Warrant Officer SPARTAN Beta-Zero-Two-Nine," she said, extending her hand. Malcolm took it. "You can just call me Raquel." She indicated the Spartans behind her. "That's Charlie One-Four-Nine, Benjamin Two-Five-Seven, and Sofija Two-Nine-Five. We're Team Echo."

They each shook his hand one by one. "Malcolm," he replied.

"First time I've ever seen a Two," Sofija said as she disengaged her greeting.

Too much of this information didn't add up for Malcolm. Their voices were in the higher ranges, adolescent, even prepubescent. Furthermore, their designations were wrong based on what he knew: there had been less than two hundred initial candidates for SPARTAN-II, so their numbers could only be as high as 150; and he wasn't sure what the Beta could mean. Plus the tone of Sofija's comment...

A chill ran up his spine.

"Who are you, exactly?"

Raquel cocked her head to the side. "We're Beta Company," she said. "Spartan Three."

Thirteen Going on Three Hundred - The MARINER Directive
Date: 30 September 2010, 4:19 pm

3. Thirteen Going on Three Hundred

0728 Hours, 19 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- Covenant perimeter, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

A divot in the permafrost earth with an overhanging lip of granite made for Team Echo's "home:" the equipment that had survived their journey to Pearl had been arrayed in a carefully defensible circle. Sitting on the edge and looking in, Warrant Officer Charlie-B149 assessed their guest. They definitely made the Twos big, he decided, and grim. Malcolm was all regulation, terse phrases, military terminology.

They had all removed their helmets, and the Two's mask of impassability had cracked slightly at the sight of Charlie and his fellow Threes, though he didn't know why.

Now Raquel, the team's CO, was sitting and talking with him, discussing the progress of their mission so far. Charlie, Benjamin, and Sofija had put on their helmets and were on sentry, though they still followed the conversation.

Raquel explained that Echo had been deployed as part of a three-team infiltration unit, each one quietly boarding a Covenant ship during a space engagement. Allegedly, ONI had intel that the enemy battlegroup would be returning to a refit and refueling point; the three teams of Spartans were to find out where it was and transmit the coordinates, at which point ONI could start planning a massive strike.

But there had been a problem: the ship Team Echo had infiltrated didn't return to the refueling station. Instead it had diverted here. At first, the team had been angry and disheartened... until they intercepted radio chatter. There was something here that the Covenant wanted very, very badly, and were willing to expend every last drop of their freaky alien blood to have it.

Team Echo felt like they should oblige them.

They stole a dropship and brought it to the surface, locating this area as a zone of Covenant interest and setting up shop. In lieu of accomplishing their primary goal, they wanted to mess up their enemy as much as possible: hit and run strikes, supply theft, sabotage. They stopped short of rampant arson, but only because the intermittent summer snowfall made it difficult.

Slowly they had come to understand the Covenant's purpose here.

Sofija-B295 huffed loudly into her mic as Raquel spoke. "I don't know why she wants us to be all friendly with the Two. We're not supposed to interact at all. We didn't need to reveal ourselves, and after we did, we definitely didn't need to leave him alive."

Charlie remembered the brief, heated exchange between Raquel and Sofija - who had been the first taken down by the Two's assault. She wanted to stick to regulation, a rarity for her, and ensure their secrecy wasn't compromised; all members of Beta Company had a standing order not to allow anyone to know they existed, let alone what their mission was. Yet Raquel, who had months before executed a gang of teenagers without a second thought when they stumbled into an op, hesitated at the idea. Her case was that they'd need the Two's help to accomplish their self-appointed objective of stopping the Covenant's efforts.

Of course, the whole debate was moot. Raquel was the CO. Sofija ultimately had to bow to her wishes.

"I don't know," Benjamin said with a sighing quality of resignation. "Might be nice to have one of them on our side. I don't think he would've been easy to kill."

Unconsciously, Charlie's hand moved to his throat where Malcolm had been holding him down. "Did he look disturbed by us?"

"What do you mean?"

"When he saw our faces. It looked like he was... upset by something."

There was a thoughtful quiet on the channel until Raquel finished briefing the Petty Officer. "Come on," she said, standing up and putting on her own helmet. "I'd like to show you what we found. Maybe you'll have a better idea of what it is than we do."

Malcolm rose and nodded before securing his own helmet.

Charlie flipped over to the team COM. "Where are we taking him, boss?"

"We're taking him to the tunnel."

0844 Hours, 19 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- access point Alpha, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

Malcolm-059 got the feeling that, without his presence, the Threes would have had an easier, quicker time reaching their destination. Raquel had described briefly to him their Semi-Powered Infiltration armor and how it took spectroscopic samples to replicate the patterns of the surrounding environment - definitely well beyond the capabilities of his own MJOLNIR rig. However, out of some misguided deference for him, the Spartans didn't activate their systems.

The hike was long and trailed around the outer edge of the Covenant perimeter, which suited Malcolm fine: keeping a considerable distance between your targets and your base camp meant that the enemy was less likely to find it. More to the point, it gave him the time to think.

He was still trying to get his head around all the things he had learned in such a short amount of time. His suspicions regarding a second class of SPARTAN-II soldiers was off the mark; apparently, since his own deployment, an entirely new program had been developed and fielded. Their designations meant there were more subjects, and the fact that they were Beta Company probably meant that more had been successfully recruited and augmented. All the Twos together, even before they started sustaining casualties, couldn't populate a full company.

Still, he felt unnerved. When they had taken off their helmets, he had recognized the patterns of scars but the flesh underneath, the shape of their faces...

He switched over to a private channel with Raquel. "Chief," he said. "I have a... personal question."

"What is it, Petty Officer?"

"When were you born?"

There was a beat before she answered. "Twenty-five thirty-one. On Charybdis."

Thirteen. The Spartan girl marching ahead of him was thirteen years old. Even though his brothers and sisters had been conscripted at six, they had never tasted combat until sixteen - and that was with insurrectionists. The Covenant came later.

But the Threes had been culled for maximum hostility towards the Covenant. Their parents had been killed -- either directly or indirectly -- by the Covenant. Their hatred was all-consuming.

Malcolm was suddenly uncertain who would be the more effective soldier: himself or them.

The trip was quiet except for the crunch of half-ton armor on permafrost. After a while of hiking they spotted an enemy patrol; Team Echo blended in perfectly, but for Malcolm it took a little more effort. When he was confident that he was hidden, he settled in to wait. He figured that it would be wiser to let them pass.

Apparently, the Threes didn't share that observation. As the small lance marched by, the Spartans sprang from cover. They had the same priority ladder as Malcolm: first they targeted the Elites, the leadership. Charlie slid a knife neatly into the back of one Elite's neck while Sofija - in a more visceral display - seized the sides of the other's head and twisted hard. Neither apparently had shields activated, and both of the aliens dropped fast. Raquel and Benjamin acted next, gunning down the three Jackals and leaving only the handful of Grunts.

There was an effectiveness in their teamwork, but it lacked the cohesive efficiency Malcolm had seen when reviewing his own Spartans' logs. Some sort of decorum was missing from the motions, and in the next few moments it became clear.

Five Grunts were now running around screaming, devoid of any leadership. The Threes grabbed their sidearms, each choosing a target and firing. They were clean kills, but Sofija turned to the fifth Grunt and blasted both its legs. The diminutive form fell to the ground, brilliant ichor leaking onto the ground, screaming; it was pathetic, and Malcolm could almost dredge up the slightest bit of sympathy for the creature.

The four Spartans holstered their weapons and surrounded the whimpering Grunt, beginning to pummel it. They kicked and punched, one solid blow dislodging its methane breather. A raw mouth with dozens of needle-like teeth gasped at the influx of oxygen, struggling to breathe.

They just stood and watched it die, slowly, before moving on.

Minutes later they came to what Malcolm could only assume was their destination. It interrupted the forested demeanor of the landscape, a chest-high wall of a silvery stone material. Trees were cleared on all sides of it. Walking up to the edge, the Spartan saw that it dropped for several hundred meters into darkness, despite the risen sun. Four grapple hard-points had been fastened to the ground around it, cables going up and over the wall.

"This is it," Raquel muttered. "We call it the tunnel."

Malcolm couldn't take his eyes off it. "Covenant?"

"No," she replied, her head twitching slightly to the side. For a Spartan, it was as much of a shrug as anyone was likely to see. "But they're interested in it. They're digging to get better access, so either they don't know about this way in or it's not worth their time to guard it all day."

He gave one of the cables an experimental tug. It was secure. "Are we going down?"

"Yes." She cocked her head back at her team. "We don't have another grappling kit, so one of us is staying topside. Benjamin!"

"Yeah, Chief?"

"You're on our ass. Make sure no one sneaks in."

"Yes, Chief."

Four Spartans clipped themselves onto the cables and prepared to descend, while Benjamin took up as inoccuous a position as he could manage. With the advantage of the SPI armor, Malcolm had to consciously remember where Benjamin was, otherwise he would disappear.

Slowly they rappelled down, controlling their fall and occasionally kicking off the nearby wall for support. The material felt slick beneath the tread of Malcolm's boots, and once or twice he caught himself fumbling for purchase. He reminded himself to let gravity do the work, and was soon moving at a good pace. Around him, the Threes were keeping up extraordinarily well; he assumed that they spent a good deal of time moving up and down this access.

The floor wasn't too far below, and as soon as he was standing and free of the cable he clicked on his helmet light. The disc of LED brilliance cut through the darkness, illuminating a sizeable tunnel of the same sleek material. At certain angles he could make out geometric lines lingering below the surface.

He chinned his helmet camera to record. An icon appeared in the top left of his HUD to remind him that it was recording all audio and visual input.

"What is this place?"

It was Charlie who spoke up. "It's hard to determine exactly what, but there's some evidence that it's a kind of shunt for the planet's geothermal energy. There's carbon damage to the surface of the material, though you wouldn't know it to look at it. Compared to the sample from the surface, there's plenty of microscopic scoring." His own lamp swept across the space. "Whoever built this was trying to reroute and control the flow of magma through the crust."


"Probably the same reason the UNSC is: easy, cheap power."

Malcolm stared down the tunnel into blackness. "Where does this go?"

"Dunno," Raquel said. "We don't have any sonar or seismic equipment. All our observations came from sizing the place up for an ambush. Wherever this end goes" -- she nodded down one end, then the other -- "we suspect the Covenant are digging in this way. Probably trying to access this very tunnel."

The ONI briefing resurfaced in Malcolm's mind. "This other way must lead towards Roland."

He could almost hear the frown in Raquel's voice. "What's in Roland?"

"It's classified. But the Covenant want in."

Raquel looked to Charlie and Sofija. "Then it's worth targeting. When we get to the surface, prep the ordnance."

"Ordnance?" Malcolm asked.

"We have a Fury tac-nuke meant for our original mission. I was thinking about deploying it in the dig site, but I wasn't sure if it would be effective enough in the open. We'd annihilate their forces, but the site would still be accessible. But a chokepoint like this? I don't care how much abuse this stone can take, a warhead will crack it, vaporize anyone nearby, and flood the whole tunnel with lava. Clean kill."

In his time, he had seen many strategies that would be considered overkill, but using a tac-nuke -- unauthorized -- was perhaps the most excessive. He opened his mouth to say something, but shut it quickly.

"Anything else you need to see?"

"No," Malcolm said. "We need to get to the surface. I have to report in."

Sic Deinde - The MARINER Directive
Date: 7 October 2010, 2:37 pm

4. Sic Deinde

1335 Hours, 19 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Tropicas, Pearl -- Main Battle Line Command Center

Seamus Conway sat in a chair, finger holding down the "rewind" button for the hundredth time, then releasing it. He listened as Raquel-B029 outlined her plan to deploy a Fury in the tunnels outside Hotel-One-Alpha. Idly he watched the recording as Malcolm-059 climbed out of the tunnel.

It was a lot to process. His suspicions about Team Echo -- and those of Beta-5 -- had been confirmed: they had a nuke, and they had their own agenda.

His COM bud buzzed. "MARINER, go ahead," he answered.

"COALMINER, secure channel omega-alpha-one."

"Roger, channel secure. Go ahead."

"Operative MARINER, you are to proceed with contingency delta. Confirm acquisition of orders."

Seamus suddenly felt breathless. "Confirm, COALMINER. Contingency delta."

"Get it done as soon as possible. COALMINER out."

The channel went dead. Seamus leaned forward and put his head in his hands. It was all happening very fast.

A knock behind him. He looked up to see Colonel Havis standing in the doorway to the office, flanked by two MPs. "Lieutenant Sanforth."

"Sir." Seamus's eyes flicked to the two Marines. "Something I can help you with?"

"Ops just reported unregistered COM traffic between Spartan Zero-Five-Nine and an unknown recipient. I intercepted it and was treated to a little show." Her eyes narrowed. "If you are attempting to interfere with my operations here, Lieutenant, I'll be forced to intervene."

The MPs tensed slightly, but Seamus didn't react. "Do you know what the term 'sensitive information' even means, Colonel?"

"I'm not sure I like your tone."

She thought she was calling his bluff. He slid an identity card across the table. "I'm not sure I like yours."

One of the MPs stepped forward and picked it up. He slotted it into a small reader on his belt, and a moment later his HUD flashed. Leaning over, he whispered something to the colonel, who suddenly looked a lot angrier.

"Section Three, huh?"

"Colonel, I'm the liaison with Beta-Five Division."

"Yeah, that was your cover when you got here." She waved off the MPs and stepped into the office. The door closed behind her and she sealed it with a code. "What's the classification of the footage I watched?"

"Black. Did anyone else see it?"

"No." She sat down, uninvited. "But I want you to explain everything to me. I won't have some op go bad under my nose and not know what it's about."

"Fine, but give me a minute. I need to send a message."

0011 Hours, 20 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- Covenant dig site, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

Malcolm-059 found himself hunkered into a very familiar cover of brush and snow overlooking the Covenant dig site. Despite the loss of one Scarab, the Covenant had been relentless in their operations, and it was about to pay off. He watched as the emerald beam cut through one last layer of bedrock; a plume of dust erupted into the air, obscuring his vision temporarily. Excited chatter cut through the BattleNet, betraying the hidden force's victory.

"Sierra Zero-Five-Nine to Sierra Zero-Two-Nine," he murmured into his COM.

"Go ahead," replied Raquel.

"They just broke through."

"Roger." A pause. "We're setting up the nuke now. Timer will be set to half an hour; that should be enough time for us to get the fuck out of here."

"Affirmative. Sierra Zero-Five-Nine, out." He clicked off the radio and realized he had been grinding his teeth. Word had come down from MARINER several hours ago, concerning the use of the Fury tactical nuclear warhead and Team Echo. On one hand, Malcolm hated the Covenant, had been ordered by Colonel Havis to do everything he could to stop the Covenant advance, and knew Raquel's plan was the most effective that he could manage by far.

On the other hand, ONI had operational authority over SPARTAN-II, and MARINER's directive had been clear: eliminate Team Echo. At first, Malcolm wasn't sure he'd be able to; their teamwork was solid, and it would be near-impossible in ideal conditions to take down all four. Wetwork on Spartans was a messy affair.

Then he discovered the hidden packet encoded with the transmission: remote detonation codes for the Fury. Once armed, he could detonate it whenever he wished.


Team Echo's plan involved being two kilometers away in half an hour, well outside the detonation range. He grabbed his gear and started running.

0014 Hours, 20 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- access point Alpha, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

Minutes after the Covenant breached one end of the tunnel, a wave of dust and detritus roared through. Charlie-B149 watched as Sofija-B295 instinctively shielded the sensitive electronics of the Fury tac-nuke with her body.

From nearby, Benjamin-B257 chuckled. "I think it can take a little dust, Sofija."

"Shut up." She righted herself and continued working. "This thing should be armed in about five minutes, Chief."

"Good." Raquel stood farther down the tunnel, glancing back at Sofija. "The Covenant won't be too quick, but hopefully half an hour will be enough time for them to get their act together and start down the tunnel."

The dust made the air thick. Charlie grunted. "Our chameleon plates won't be any good in this stuff."

"Won't have to be. We'll make our escape using an over-land route."

He nodded and glanced around. The dust swirled in eddies around him, moving away from the detonation, down the tunnel. He watched as a flurry moved against the breeze.

Against the breeze...

Realization struck him as a pair of sapphire blades exploded into existence in the empty air. "Contact!" He brought up his rifle, but the world had slowed down. The energy sword cut geometric patterns through the dust as it came down, and at the last second the Spartan twisted out of the way.

Not fast enough. The weapon sliced through the carbine and his forearm, severing his right hand while bisecting his gun. For an instant, Charlie's world was on fire, but training and adrenaline quieted the pain. Instantly his good hand freed his combat knife from its sheath and stabbed out, catching his assailant in the neck. The camouflaged Elite warbled, fading quickly into view with blood welling up from its throat, spilling between its twisted mandibles. The Spartan stabbed it again, pushing it over. After it fell, he dropped the knife and quickly snatched up the alien's blade, activating it with a squeeze.

"Status!" Raquel shouted.

"I'm hurt," replied Charlie. The hoarseness of his own voice surprised him.

"If there's one, there's more," Benjamin hissed.

"All right, Spartans," Raquel said, "circle up around Sofija. We need to arm this nuke. Keep your eyes peeled."

They did so, forming a three-point defense around their comrade; she didn't even look up from her work. Nobody mentioned Charlie's hand; their discipline had kicked in, and he didn't want any sympathy from them anyway.

Their augmented eyes swept the dust-choked air. Charlie caught another irregularity. "Contact right, five degrees!"

"Roger!" Benjamin brought up his rifle and fired in quick three-round bursts. Bullets bit into the Elite's armor, power fluctuations making its camouflage flicker. The Spartan retargeted, putting another burst through its head. It dropped heavily to the slick floor.

A war cry sounded behind them. They turned to see two more swords appear next to Raquel. One lunged instantly, but the Chief sidestepped neatly and lashed out with the butt of her rifle, catching the Elite square in its unseen jaw. It staggered from the blow, blade swinging uncertainly. The other moved to attack, but Benjamin fired, forcing it to dance away. Charlie broke rank and rushed in, his own liberated weapon at the ready. The Elite parried, but Charlie slid under the counterattack and thrust upward, impaling the alien through its ribcage.

The remaining Elite lunged for Charlie, but two sharp barks sounded and purple gouts of blood appeared in the air. A thud sounded as it hit the ground, dying slowly from two punctures through its single lung and twin hearts.

From the ground, Sofija held her sidearm, curls of dust spiraling away from the barrel. Satisfied, she turned her attention back to the bomb.

"Clear?" Raquel said.

Charlie looked around. "Hell if I know."

"I think we're done," muttered Benjamin. He stepped up to Charlie and examined his stump. "Clean cut. If we can find your arm, the white coats may be able to reattach it."

"Negative," said Raquel. "The bomb's done. Sofija, set the timer and we're bugging out. The Covenant is moving in faster than we thought."

Sofija looked up. "Chief, how should we camouflage the bomb?"

"Don't bother." Raquel pointed to the rapelling lines. "We're up and out. Once we hit the surface, start running. I'll give Malcolm a call and tell him to cover our exit."

"Yes, Chief." Charlie noticed that was the first time she had referred to him by his proper name. He smirked under his helmet; maybe the Two had a place on the squad after all.

The other three ascended before him while he fastened the line to his belt. Once they were up, his team pulled him free.

Almost out of here.

0029 Hours, 20 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- Waypoint Alpha, 2.5 kilometers from Target Hotel-One-Alpha

Malcolm's COM beeped. "Sierra Zero-Two-Nine to Sierra Zero-Five-Nine."

"Go ahead," he replied.

"We are clear of the tunnel and proceeding on exit vector. Double-check our route for hostiles, then proceed to waypoint alpha. We'll see you there."

"Roger." He paused. "Good luck."

The channel cut out. He was already at waypoint alpha, staring over the terrain behind him. Ice water filled his limbs. They may not have been his Spartans, but they were still Spartans...

... and Spartans followed orders.

He accessed his COM and keyed in the remote detonation codes.

Nearly three kilometers away, the sun rose eight hours early. Roaring filled his helmet as an expanding wall of air rushed towards him. He dove to the ground as the shockwave hit, rattling his MJOLNIR armor. It rattled like the inside of a ship dropping into the atmosphere. Alarms screamed at him and went silent as the EMP caused his electronics to reset.

For several minutes he lay there, unmoving, as soot settled on his armor, burying him slowly. This, he thought, must be what death was like.

He hoped it had been instantaneous for Team Echo.

When his COM finally rebooted, he contacted MARINER. "Objective complete, sir," he said. His voice seemed far away.

"Roger that, Sierra Zero-Five-Nine. Return to base."


He started walking.

1302 Hours, 20 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Tropicas, Pearl -- one klick from main battle line

Malcolm-059 watched the Pelican descend towards the platform. There were fewer people around now, as opposed to when he had first arrived. He didn't mind.

Lieutenant Sanforth had been gone by the time Malcolm made it back to base. There was no debriefing. Instead, he had been handed orders to report for transport to the UNSC Desert of the Ocean by 1300 on the landing pad.

He had tried to sleep.

Today, it wasn't snowing. In fact, it seemed brighter than before. The distant sounds of combat were closer now. While he had been in the field, the Covenant had launched a major land offensive. UNSC forces were getting whittled down. Columns of smoke were visible from where Malcolm stood.

Footsteps sounded behind him. "Petty Officer."

Malcolm turned and saluted. "Colonel Havis, sir."

She returned his salute. "I came to see you off."

"That's very kind of you, sir."

"I don't know what you were up to out there," she said. "Well, I have an idea. We all saw the flash." Somehow she met his eyes through his visor. "I hardly need to lecture a Spartan on the value of duty, but we all have to make tough calls in this war."

"Yes, sir."

"Remember that. Serve without regret, soldier."

The Pelican came down to the pad, almost drowning out her last words. He shouted to be heard over it: "Sir, thank you, sir!"

The colonel saluted. Her lips moved, but her words were carried away by the Pelican's engines. Reflexively Malcolm returned the salute, then stepped back into the troop bay. The colonel stayed where she was, watching him, until the door closed.

"All aboard," the crew chief said. "Next stop, the Desert of the Ocean."

Malcolm sat down on the bench, barely noticing the squeal of the metal as he did so. He was a Spartan. He knew his duty. But regret? That wasn't something he knew what to do about. In training, he had been taught that duty was to be carried out. Any internal feelings that he felt as a result of carrying out his duty were inconsequential.

That's what his team was for, and he couldn't wait to return to them.

The Pelican lifted off into the sky.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
      ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge