Chapter 13: Castle Doctrine
January 1, 3242, 0030 hours
Castle Acorn, Mobius
The first night of the new year was not what Sally Acorn had expected as she slowly made her way along the well-worn and ancient footpath of this place, not too far from the castle so its light could still easily be seen between the trees, but far enough away that the noise from the revelers was at most a distant buzz, like that of an annoying insect. Up close, the talking, laughing, and the sounds of thousands of merry-making diplomats was deafening. Tonight was New Year's Eve after all, and even the most stuck-up politician couldn't ignore the allure of fine food and wine. She was barely able to escape with her sanity intact.
She wore a simple but stylish skirt and jacket colored a powder blue with dark flats. She hated heels and had for the longest time. Flats were the closest thing to a boot that one could wear and still be socially acceptable. She had never really gotten used to being back in a civilian's uniform. Serving for years on OMEGA had accustomed her to a much more spartan lifestyle. Now she was back to being a politician, and she didn't like it.
However, none of that mattered now all the way out here. The night was virtually silent. There was no buzzing of creatures in the frozen forest. Before long she broke from the small forest path to the wide-open and hilly destination. All around her were small stone markers placed in the earth. On many of them were wilted and brown flowers, but there were more than a few newer tributes to those that forever would rest here. Her family had worked so hard to ensure that these men and women would forever be known. Many were of her kin, but more than a few were Human.
Her breath came quicker and soon it was a stream of vapor streaming into the cloudless night. The Broken Moon was low and close to the tree-tops this evening; the glittering sparks of its ring a galaxy unto itself. Even from here it was possible to see the gouge of the ancient impact that had torn part of it asunder; still a mystery even after all this time. It was a silent guardian lighting the way. Above, a shooting star flew across the sky. She knew it could very likely be a re-entering craft as well, but she wished on it all the same.
She passed by many stones, a steady hand running across the curves of the stones. She read some of the names by moonlight. 'Parsons, William, PFC, 2nd Kingsmen', 'Oliver t. Serval, 1LT, 1st Royal Recon', 'Roddenbury, Jaspar, SSGT, 2nd Kingsmen'; all of these men had served the Kingdom, but her heart sank when she read the dates of their passing. Many of these men had died in the last ten years.
'Kersiac, Vere, Corporal, SOG OMEGA – UNSC'
Sally stopped, remembering that day almost eight years ago when the first Human blood had been spilled on Mobius in a long time. She remembered Vere and his words to her; how he wished he could still stay among them. She never knew the Human long enough to get to know him. He had been Croatian, she had remembered, and from his record that she had read after his passing, she learned about his youth in Zagreb and his early enlistment. She touched the engraved letter omega on the stone. He had posthumously been made part of the team; OMEGA hadn't existed officially at that time. He deserved that much. Not forty feet from where Vere lay she found Hank Geri, another proto-OMEGA that she knew even less. However, she would not find Norman Hecks, a man who deserved a much better end. All Humans. All of them good Humans, and all of them dead. All dead.
She stopped as she saw the obsidian marker in the plot. She knew it would be there, yet she felt as if it had taken her by surprise. The silence was deafening but she could not look away. She had sought the obsidian marker out and no stalling could prevent the inevitable.
Her feet dragged as she stepped forward not as a being with free will but more like a puppet with strings being pulled closer and closer. Her eyes shone in the light of the moon and she blinked quickly to clear them. On the front of the grave was a picture. A young Human gazed confidently towards the camera, green eyes glittering beneath serious brows. He wore a blue dress uniform and white peaked cap. His expression was unwavering in the shot. There wasn't a trace of fear in his eyes; not a wrinkle of stress or line in his face.
Sally's hand reached out and touched the cold surface of the picture, fingers sliding across the face.
He was so young. So handsome.
She looked at the carved name, knowing deep down in her heart that every time she came here that it was only a dream, but every time the name remained the same. It was the same young man that lay in the grave. The same Human. Her Human.
“Happy New Year, my love.” Sally said, her voice almost inaudible, even to herself. It was all she was able to say as she bowed her head in prayer, praying to the Ancients to watch over his spirit, to give him guidance and protection. “I miss you.” she said. It was something she said every time, but it was no less true. “You should see Freddy.” she said wiping her eyes. “He's getting big. Sasha's taking good care of him. He's talking now, you know. Do you know what his first word was? It… it was...”
She couldn't bear it. She lost her footing and fell to the stairs, tears dripping onto the beautifully tended grave.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. She saw the twisted reality of it all. Her Freddy. Her little one. Everything she knew was second hand. Everything she had learned, every first experience had been relayed by letter or through a phone call. The cruelty of it stung her the most. She never watched her little one take his first step or heard his first word. It was like he was never her child to begin with, and worst yet, she had rationalized every single aspect of this.
She wanted Freddy. She wanted Christopher. She wanted a second chance.
Her cries echoed into the night with only the gusts of early January winter air to keep her company. Her hair waved in the wind as she looked back to the picture.
He was so handsome.
She got back up and went to see it one more time. She studied his face. She knew how it felt and how surprisingly soft it was to her. She saw where scars would one day cross his chin and cheeks from battle. She had seen that face on warm nights and in cool early mornings.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember. She could swear that if she could do it just right, if she could concentrate just hard enough…
“Are you lonely?” came a voice with an accent that she had not heard in two years.
She turned, tears streaming down her cheeks. A happy cough of a sob escaped her lips. There he was, standing in his uniform as young and as beautiful as he had appeared in the photo. Medals and ribbons were pinned upon his chest, and his white cap was tucked under his arm.
All she could do was nod.
He strode up to her, dress shoes clacking on the stone. “It must have been a bad party if you wanted to spend it with me.”
She laughed but wiped a new tear from her eyes. It was that New York accent of his that made it so funny. It was exactly the type of joke he would make. She risked a glance at him and found him as he once was.
At the end, he had been ragged. His face had been lined, and a young man of 26 had the face ten years older, if not more. His thoughts had been incoherent, and his voice moreso. The last time she had seen him alive, he had been chained to a pillar for his own safety.
But here he was young and beautiful. He was twenty-one again. He had not been ravaged by war or stress. It was the first time she had ever laid eyes on him in that throne room. His hair was clipped very short, and his face was clean-shaven. His uniform was fresh-pressed; ribbons not one degree off-rotation, and every medal from his distinguished marksman qaualification badges to his service striped was in place. Despite the age, his captains' bars were still on his shoulders.
Sally resisted the urge to run to him.
"How many times have you been here?" he asked; his smile fading into the night.
"I forget." she answered him, voice quiet. "I've started coming more and more."
"What's wrong?" he asked, stepping towards her, brow furrowed in concern.
"I'm afraid." she admitted at once.
"Afraid about what?"
"Everything. Everything's happening all at once." she looked at the ground and said, "They lost contact with Miles' group. They're not sure what happened."
"What do you mean?"
"They don't know if they're dead or not." Sally said, now making eye contact. her face was damp with tears. "We knew it was dangerous but they were sent anyway."
"Look, Sal." the Human said coming up to her, placing both hands on her shoulders, "It happened to us before. We were fine. You have to think about that. They're fine."
"How do you know?"
The Captain's face darkened. "Because every time someone wrote me off as dead, I showed them where they could put that obit. We don't work that way."
She glanced back at the grave, the man's words hanging in the air.
"Well," he breathed. "Some things you just can't come back from." he shrugged. "I tried. You know I really tried. I thought about you at the end."
"I know." she responded. "They told me that."
"If there was one thing I wanted to go out on, it was your face. They gave me that opportunity. It felt like I was seeing you for the first time all over again."
She wiped her eyes. She looked up at him, a faint smile on her face as she studied him up close. A hand came up to touch his face. She felt nothing of course; her fur prevented her from feeling the texture of his skin, but she thought about it hard and remembered the feeling of touching him for the first time; feeling what he felt. The euphoria came in like a rush making her knees weak.
"Just shaved." he said with a chuckle.
She said at last, "Would you like to see your son?"
Now it was his turn to feel weak. His head made a small but strong nod. "Yes." he said, his voice coming from far away.
Sally found the picture quickly and held it out for the Human to study. He didn't take it, but leaned in close. In the photograph, Sally held a baby boy, perhaps a year old in the picture. The boy was a small but happy thing; fingers in his mouth as he and his mother looked at the camera. Sally's smile was energetic, but the baby looked amazed by what was taking his picture. Unless told, there was no way to know that Sally was the mother.
"He looks so much like you. More every day. Our little Freddie."
Pride filled the Human's face. Confidence and joy that he masked well, but not well enough that Sally did not see it. She came next to him and nuzzled her cheek against his neck, shivering as she remembered. "Thank you, Christopher."
"When is he coming home?"
A bright light filled the sky, follwed instantly by a shockwave that blew through the trees, knocking branches loose and sending frightened birds streaming into the night air. Fire rose into the night and a plume of smoke stood out against the stars. Instantly sirens reached her ears, and before she knew it, she was moving. Almost as an afterthought she glanced back towards the grave. She was all alone.
Sally streamed along the forest path, reaching on the inside of her jacket pocket and pulling out the Python. She checked to make sure that the chambers were all loaded and slipping it back into its recessed holster. Though she was a civilian at this point, she was still licensed by both the UEG and the Kingdom to carry a concealed, or even open weapon should the need arise. Tonight it came in force.
Part of the castle was on fire; emergency vehicles already appearing. She ran as hard as she could, feeling muscles pulling and tearing, but still she moved and even in formal wear leaped over bushes and low walls. There were more blasts from within the hall where only half an hour before she was inside of. Her eyes widened. This was where the diplomats were. A hole the size of a large truck had been blown out of the wall, exposing part of the hallway wthin.
She saw SIU constables starting to file in. They saw her and then her weapon. In response, Sally lowered the Python and showed her right hand, a signit on her ring finger. Instantly, the police backed down and fell into step behind her.
Sally breached the hole in the wall first, gun back up and scanning the area. She noted metal scraps on the floor, but near it, the familiar sight of carbonized bone. She knelt and looked at a piece closely.
"Highness?" one of the constables asked.
"Legion." Sally said simply.
The ears of the SIU troopers ducked in fear and anger. A few started whispering.
"That's enough!" she barked. "Secure the area!"
They jerked in surprise, but nodded and split up, clearing rooms while she investigated the site of the detonation. She wondered at the size of the hole and realized that this detonation was larger than the ones back on Tribute. They were upping their load.
She realized what she was supposed to be doing and broke into a dead run towards the main hall, where the majority of the revelers were. Castle guards were streaming up and down the hallways ensuring that servants were safe. It wasn't long until Sally found a file of Marines double-timing it along the same corridor. She smiled, assured. There was always a garrison of the UNSC in the castle.
"Staff Sergeant!" She called out. The Human in command of the unit, a man with dark skin and a thin face, turned to look at her.
"Sergeant Major Acorn!" She identified herself. Though she wasn't really in active duty, she was sure that these men would want to get the job done. Besides, the head of state trumped all. "Point of contact is likely main hall. Have your men follow me and prepare to fire at will. Targets are capable of suicide bombing!"
The staff sergeant, whose nametag said Singh, nodded. "Understood." he said.
"Stay in a staggered column and keep your weapons up!" Sally called. "Triple-time, gentlemen!"
The scene was chaos. The main hall had tables flipped, banners punctured by shrapnel, and on the floor were more than a few bodies dressed in finery. Black cloth, grey wool, and satiny blue were mixed with splotches of red where the partygoers had fallen. Sally looked around frantically for a red dress and blond hair, but a sigh was mixed with a cry of relief when she could not see them, no matter how hard she looked. Secondly, she looked for her parents, but still found no such bodies about. They were always resourceful. However, among the dead were senators and mayors; most of them Mobian, but she spotted the famous Human actor Stephano Viabello. lying back, with mouth open and gasping for air. He had a tablecloth pressed to his gut tightly. Sally had seen many of his movies; many of them action films. He would have been trained to perform basic first aid. Others, like a senator from the planet Constance, were not so lucky and stopped struggling before they got there.
"Sweep and clear!" Sally commanded. "Keep weapons up! These guys infiltrate!"
Singh nodded. "Watch your backs." He commanded. "Partygoers may be potential bombers. Jessup, take Marquez, Kole and Powell up the left side of the hall. Hong, Kurita, Fallows, get the right. Everyone else sweep up the center aisle."
Sally proceeded though, her gun barrel pointed at a forty-five degree angle. She felt the fire on her face and her eyes felt dry. She blinked to keep them alert and to get the tears away. They had attacked her home. They Legion had the sheer brazen balls to do so on New Year's Eve. She fantasized about closing her fingers around Kintobor's neck and squeezing until...
Someone grabbed her leg. She gasped and pointed her gun down at a wounded Human male with alabaster skin. He was shaved bald, perhaps forty; face creased with worry as hey lay halfway under an overturned table.
"Help." he said weakly with an accent from the Deep South, much like Bunnie. Oh God, she was here too. "Help, highness." he said.
"Where are you hurt?" she asked. Let's get this table off of you. Staff Sergeant!" she called out to Singh, who came running over, weapon drawn. The man under the table looked concerned.
"I need help lifting this table, Staff." Sally said. "Grab that other end and yank it free."
"Got it, Sergeant Major." Singh nodded. Together, they crouched down to grab the heavy maple table. "On three?"
"Sure." Sally said. "One..."
Two cracks rang out. She was deafened and jumped back, gun out and firing at the prone man, who now had a small handgun out. The shots struck him in the back. The man cried out, dropped the gun, and Sally kicked it away just as it hit the floor. It skittered away into the blaze.
"Singh!" Sally cried out. "Staff!"
The staff sergeant lay on the ground, gently touching the two bullet wounds at his heart. He pulled his hand away and looked at the ruby red on his skin before slumping back unconscious.
Weapon-fire rang out across the hallway. Marines began to take incoming from supposed corpses now on their feet. The attackers were Human and Mobian alike, suddenly grasping weapons that threw orange streaks downrange.
These weapons were silver in color and components were twitching around them. A flurry of bolts darted across the stone hall, seeking out the Marines who ran for cover behind the pillars of the hallway.
Sally had seen these weapons before. Hard Light firearms. These were Forerunner wapons.
She barely had time to contemplate when she saw another form run towards her. She was once in a flowing and beautiful cream and yellow-colored dress, but now she had bulky cargoes and a muscle shirt. Bunnie Rabbot skidded to a halt near her friend, ears folded back, teeth gritted, and her new metal arm clenched into a fist.
"Get down!" she said, yanking Sally off her feet. Bunnie kicked over a table and used it for cover, just as a trio of bolts sailed over their heads. She set her friend loose and pressed a vew buttons on her arm. It made a series of flourishes and when it was done, her forearm was a barrel. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a plasma magazine, slapping it into place. The end of the barrel began to crackle with cyan lightning.
"What happened?" Sally asked.
"Nobody saw it coming." she said, her accent magnified by anger. "A few minutes after the ball dropped people were staring to dance. Then a few of them just... went off."
"I thought we were looking for them! How could the Legion get inside here?"
"I don't know." Bunnie said shaking her head. "Are you hurt, hon?"
"No. I wasn't here."
Bunnie's eyes darted. "Well you missed the worst of it. Police are coming but..." she glanced above the makeshift barricade. "I think this one's for the Humans to mop up."
A blur shot past them. A Legionnaire spy was thrown off his feet and flew back ten feet before slumping. The blur moved to another, and another, taking the spies off guard. The remainder saw that the fight was one sided and pulled back. In the blink of an eye, Sonic the Hedgehog skidded to a halt behind the table. Sally regarded him. He was still in tuxedo pants and undershirt, but he had discarded his jacket to allow him to move freely. He was not unharmed though, a few cuts scored his face and his true fur color was visible in some places.
"Got a few more out to the EMTs." Sonic said.
"How's Amy and the kids?"
"They're fine." Sonic breathed. "I got Sonia and Manic out first with them." she looked at Sally. "I got Freddie and Sasha out too."
Sally cried out again and kissed Sonic deeply on the cheek. "Thank you!"
"It's OK." he said, shrugging it off. "These rats are all over the castle. Looks like they wanted to shake things up."
"Why did they do this now? Sounds like a message. 'Ha ha, we know were you live and can hit you any time'. Here's what I think about that." He reached into his pants pockets and pulled out what Sally recognized instantly as a set of knuckle dusters. "Nobody threatens my kids." Sonic said. "Nobody. Gloves are off in the new year. Save some champagne for me, eh guys?"
He streaked off, heading elsewhere. Bunnie leapt up to cover his escape. Plasma leapt from the barrel of her arm cannon, striking down another Legionnaire agent, a female equine. This one had a failsafe, and she exploded in a fireball, taking out two nearby spies.
Sally wondered why some now had the explosive implants and some didn't. Perhaps this was how they didn't spot very many? Now was the time to move. The surviving Marines and Bunnie were putting pressure on the spies. She checked the chambers of her Python and exited cover, firing off two more .357 rounds to strike a spy just below the arm. He crumpled wordlessly. His partner, a Human woman in a red dress instantly saw this and backed behind a pillar. The Marines however now had a clear shot and fired on her position. The woman screamed out in pain and fell.
"Clear right!" Master Corporal Hong shouted.
"Left's hot!" the other squad leader, Corporal Jessup, called. "Bad guy taking cover near throne, left side!"
"Understood!" Hong said. "Advance right and engage hostile! Fallows, get some suppressing fire on target!"
"Aye-aye, Master Corporal!" Fallows called, diving to the carpeted floor and unfolding the bipod on his AIE-997 Light Machine Gun. The belt fed weapon immediately roared as nine-hundred rounds per minute were fired towards the thrones where Corporal Fallows had tagged targets. In everyone's VISRs, an outline of a Legionnaire was now visible.
"Hostile now engaging!" Jessup called. "He's got an arm gun!"
Immediately the left flank took cover as the Legionnaire's arm transformed into a rotary cannon. A deafening hum filled the throne room as Fallows' 900 RPM was doubled by the Legionnaire's cannon. Fallows continued to fire; shell casings ejecting from his weapon like a brass fountain. His weapon stopped firing.
"Fallows! Status!" Hong called.
"Feed jam, Master Corporal!" Fallows called. "He's got eyes on me!"
Fallows rolled out of the way just as Bunnie stood up and sent a salvo down the hall, interrupting the firing of the Legionnaire, who ducked down, allowing Jessup’s group to move forward.
“Getting cover fire from the bunny girl!” Jessup said.
“Never thought I’d hear that.” Hong breathed before surrounding the trapped cyborg, who stood up again defiantly, firing a burst towards Fallows, who was moving slower than the others due to his heavy weapon.
“Someone cover my ass, man!” Fallows cried out. “Take him out, guys!”
Sally stood and fired two rounds from the revolver. The .357 slugs spiraled from the Python at eighteen-hundred feet a second, smacking the Legionnaire in the gut. What she didn’t expect was the ricochet straight into the wall. The second was deflected right up into the roof.
“Keep on him! Looks like he’s padded!” Hong shouted.
A few ‘aye-aye’s came from the group, guns firing. The bullets ricocheted off. The Legionnaire ripped off the coat entirely, showing an armored body. Plates were embedded in every single place imaginable. Only the face seemed Human. The second hand turned into another rotary gun, and the cyborg returned fire.
Powell took several shots to the abdomen and fell backwards grunting and groaning, weapon firing wildly.
“Man down!” Jessup called. “Help!”
“Keep shooting!” Hong shouted. “Take him down! Take the bastard down now!”
The Legionnaire charged forward towards the group of Marines. Jessup and Kurita retreated, firing as they ran. However, the mechanical man was faster and caught up with them. He grabbed Kurita by the arm and threw him against a pillar at the other end of the room. Before he could grab Jessup though, Sally fired the remaining two rounds in the back of his head. Despite the clear kill shot and close range, the rounds did nothing.
The Legionnaire turned, eyes flashing and a small spread across his lips. “Wondered where you were.” He said, his voice low and gravelly; shockingly normal compared to his heavily augmented frame. “Say hello to your bastard boyfriend.”
Sonic came from nowhere, leaping into the air and striking the Legionnaire across the face, cracking his head to one side. Blood arced in the air and splattered against the stone. The cyborg spun around, temporarily losing his balance while Sonic ran towards one of the pillars, and using this momentum, shot back for another strike, which sounded like metal clanging against metal. Once more the soldier was dazed. It was enough for the hedgehog to grab at the man’s collar and strike against him again and again. However, the effect wore off. The Legionnaire grabbed Sonic’s wrist, drew his head back, and slammed it against the hedgehog’s skull with a sharp motion. Now the Mobian was dazed and tossed away not far from where Kurita’s prone form was.
Sally was out of ammunition. She broke open the action to eject the spent shells that rang around her, but before she could feed more into the chambers, she saw the cyborg’s eyes being to glow.
“For the Legion!”
The man’s upper half vanished in a mist of blood and metal. The metallic lower half teetered and collapsed, trailing hydraulic fluid and blood into the carpets. Sally was dumbstruck, moon clip still in her hand and the Python cracked open. She waited, still not sure what had just happened. The Marines were silent. She and Bunnie were silent, and Sonic was only starting to raise his head. Sally rushed to him.
“Are you OK?”
“I don’t know.” Sonic said, touching his skull. “Forget about me; how are you?”
“We need to get you to a doctor.”
“Nah, I’m cool.” He said, slowly rising to his feet. “I’m cool.”
She didn’t believe it for a second, noticing a slur in his words. He could have had a concussion, but she didn’t say anything.
“What happened?” she asked, “He was ready to blow.”
“Timing is everything.” A smug female voice sounded. When Sally turned, she saw a giant in green armor. A golden visor greeted her vision. On his breastplate, spray-painted in white lettering, was ‘117’.
“John!” Sally said, overjoyed.
“That’s OK, I’m just the help.” Came the female voice once more, whom Sally also knew well.
“Cortana.” She said.
“Still kicking.” The AI responded. “Chief, the area looks clear, but we should make sure more of these civilians aren’t faking.”
“Understood.” The Spartan solemnly said. Two more armored forms flanked him, guns up. “Kim, take the left, Armand on the right.”
They moved without words, but gave curt nods. It was only now that Sally recognized that the Lieutenant was carrying a long and wicked-looking anti-materiel rifle in his gauntlets. It was long and heavy, with an oversized bolt handle to cycle the mammoth rounds that the gun fired, judging by its bore. The round had annihilated the Legionnaire, and blew a divot almost two feet deep behind him. John worked the bolt, ejecting the huge shell. It made a deep ringing noise like a church bell compared to the smaller caliber rounds in the Marines’ rifles.
“Marines, detain the civilians.” John ordered.
“Yes, sir.” Hong said. The Master Corporal was now the one in charge since Singh’s vital monitors flat lined after he was shot. Sally returned to where the man lay and saw that he wasn’t breathing. However, the man that she had fired at twice still was. His own respiration was rapid, shallow, and raspy, as if he was fighting for his life. If he was pretending to be dead, he wasn’t doing a good job at it.
“John!” Sally called out. “This one’s still breathing!”
The Spartan slung the massive rifle over his back and walked over to the table. With a quick motion of his wrist, 117 lifted it as easily was a child would lift a sheet of cardboard. He flung it back and it landed on its supports with a deep and dull impact. The Lieutenant reached onto his belt and extracted canisters of biofoam, injecting them into the Legionnaire spy.
“Why didn’t he detonate?” Sally asked.
Cortana answered, “I’m not detecting any explosive devices within his body. No accelerants, no fuses… as a matter of fact I’m only detecting minimal implants, and those are mostly bone density supplements and a chip in the brain.”
“So he’s Legion, but not implanted? That makes no sense.”
Bunnie walked over. “Feel like giving the son of a bitch a good kick in the teeth.” She hissed. “Murderers; all of them.”
There were more injections, and before long, the man’s breathing steadied.
“No.” he groaned. “Let me die.”
“Guess it’s not your lucky day.” Sally said with a cold smile. “Think you can attack my home and get away with it?”
“We did get away with it.”
She glanced over at the Marines clearing the room. “You must have a messed up definition of success.”
“Nobody saw us.” The man coughed. “Nobody detected us. We can do it once; we can do it again. You aren’t safe. We know who you are, and who your family is. We can find you anywhere. Tonight was a point proven. We own you.”
Sally stepped forward and started to raise her gun hand, but Bunnie’s own metallic hand pressed it back down.
“Go ahead.” The man dared.
“You’re going to tell us everything you know. Dead man can’t talk.”
The man smiled. “You’re damn right.” He said, before he closed his eyes and seized up.
Everyone jumped back at the sudden screaming. The man’s body arched once, twice, stiffened for a moment, and then slumped limp.
Silence. The fire glinted off the dead man’s eyes, but his face had a strange frozen smile on it.
“Brainwave function terminated.” Cortana announced. “I should have seen it. That chip must have overloaded his nervous system. Even their spies are rigged for suicide.”
“Cyanide’s cheaper.” John said in an undertone.
Bunnie tried not to look at the body. “What did he mean? Tonight was a point proven?”
“They’re screwing with us.” Sally said. “They’re trying to divert our attention from what the rest of the Legion’s up to.” She glanced to Sonic and asked, “Did they get to Ops at all?”
“No.” the hedgehog said. “They were mostly in the corridors all around the castle. They were all spaced out.”
“Any word from mom and dad?”
“EMTs are airlifting survivors out.” Cortana announced. “You saved a lot of lives tonight, blue.”
Sonic half-smiled, “Good deed for the day, right?”
“I have to talk to Andsworth.” Sally said.
“That’s actually what we were here to talk to you about.” Cortana said after a beat.
“What do you mean?” Sally asked.
Now another voice joined them. Sultry and pompous with just the right amount of detachment. Once again, it was a voice that the princess knew well.
“More like ONI needs to speak with you.” Said Rouge the Bat, stepping from the darkness. Her midnight black jumpsuit standing out against the flames and the smoke, with the exception of a chestplate painted pink among the black in the rough shape of a heart; mixing vanity with function.
Sally scowled. She wanted nothing to do with Naval Intelligence. “Get out of here.” She said.
“This isn’t a request. The UEG government specifically asked for you to be present. It’s quite important.”
“This isn’t the time!” Sally shouted. “Look at this! We need to find out who’s behind this!”
“We will take care of that.” Rouge said. “We already have people looking in to this. You are needed elsewhere because of what was found on Requiem.”
Sally froze. She looked at John. “Weren’t you…”
“I recommend you listen to what she has to say, ma’am.” The Spartan said in a low voice.
Sally glanced back. Rouge made no movement at first, judging whether or not Sally was receptive to her words.
“I have a letter from Admiral Redby. He requests your presence immediately at the location mentioned here.”
“Letter?” Sally asked.
Rouge nodded. “ONI doesn’t believe this information should be in digital format. Everything related to the outcome of this mission has been declared above top secret. All relevant information will be included in a hand-written packet for you to review.” She reached into a side pocket of her uniform and pulled out an envelope, marked with a barcode, and the pyramid symbol of the Office of Naval Intelligence. No other form of writing was present, with the exception of a military law code on the back.
Sally took it, and opened it. Bunnie got close.
“That’s far enough, O’Hare.”
The rabbit frowned deeply at the usage of her real name and stared at Rouge with a dark look in her eyes. “You think I’m one of them too, shugah?”
“You’ll get a copy if you need to know.” Rouge said simply. “Back off or I can have you arrested.”
Reluctantly, Bunnie did so, looking steamed.
Sally unfolded the message, and began to read. It was a short message; perhaps three paragraphs long, written in spidery yet clearly legible handwriting.
‘SUB: Asset Acquired
I believe we can agree that this information should remain in physical format. We believe several of our communications are being monitored, partially by those we think are spies for the Legion. We have no idea how deeply inserted they are. Finitevus and Kintobor have started sending scattered agents deep into industrial areas and shipyards to disrupt our manufacturing capabilities. We are still as of yet unaware of their location.
However, the purpose of his message is to inform you that the operation at Requiem has yielded results that cannot be described. You are hereby required to be present at a meeting to determine future actions and it is believed that your involvement during the events of three years prior may be of importance, specifically data recovered from an asset now deceased. We believe that information that he shared with you may be of use. We will explain more when you are present. Agent Rouge and Lieutenant 117 will bring you to the location where planning will be conducted.
I cannot stress enough how this information must remain top-secret. I cannot explain more, except that the asset recovered will make our assault on the Prisoner a realistic strategy. You are to report to the Sedna facility in EUS-Prime for further instructions as soon as you are delivered this message.
Best regards, and good luck,
R.Adm. Hugh Redby, UNSC HIGHCOM’
Sally looked at the message twice, tried to parse some meaning from it, but couldn’t. She tried to look at the Spartan for some tell, but obviously found none. She tried with Rouge and received the same result.
“What did it say?” Bunnie asked. “Sal, what’s wrong?”
“I…” she said, thinking about what this could possibly entail. “I have a guess, but I don’t know….” She stopped, looked at the letter one last time, and then tossed it into a fire. “I have to go.”
“Trust me,” Rouge said watching the princess walk past without a second glance, “You don’t want to keep this one waiting.”
But Sally didn’t respond. She simply walked out of the room. Rouge took a deep breath, sighed, and said, “Let’s go, John.”
“Are we clear?” the Spartan asked. Both Kim and Armand nodded, coming back to their leader as he too left.
In a moment, Bunnie and Sonic were left on their own. The Marine behind them were providing medical aid while restraining survivors. However, they felt quite alone despite everything.
“You ever feel like we’re left out of the loop, hon?” Bunnie asked.
“Every day.” Sonic admitted. “She went back to the grave again?”
Bunnie nodded, not saying anything. “I’m worried about her.”
“So am I.” Sonic said. “What do you think they want her for?”
“She looked like she saw a ghost. I don’t think I want to know.”
They stood in silence for a minute longer contemplating their best friend and her future, then went to go help the survivors.