1647 HOURS, MAY 1, 2531 (MILITARY CALENDAR) \ 111 TAURI SYSTEM, CAMP NEW HOPE, PLANET VICTORIA
John, SPARTAN-117, despite being encased in a half ton of angular MJOLNIR armor, moved like a shadow through the twilight forest underbrush.
The guard on the perimeter of Base New Hope drew on a cigarette, took a final puff, and tossed the butt.
John lunged, a whisper rustle, and he wrapped his arm around the man's neck, wrenching it up with a pop.
The guard's cigarette hit the ground.
Nearby crickets resumed their night song.
John pinged his status to the rest of Blue Team. Four green LED lights winked on his display, indicating the rest of the extended perimeter guards had been neutralized.
The next objective was a delivery gate, the weakest part of the rebel base's defense system. The guardhouse had two men outside, two on the rooftop, and several inside. Past this, however, the base had impressive security even by Spartan standards: motion and seismic sensors, a triple layering of guards, trained dogs, and overhead MAKO-class drones.
John blinked his status light green: the signal to proceed with the next phase.
The setting sun just touched the edge of the horizon when the guards on the roof of the bunker twitched and crumpled. It happened so fast, John wasn't sure which Linda had targeted first. A heartbeat later the two on the ground were dead as well.
John and Kurt ran for the gatehouse.
Kelly sprinted ahead, covering the three hundred meters from the forest in half the time, and leapt to the roof in a single bound. She opened the roof's vent and dropped flash-bang grenades.
Kurt posted outside the door, and swept the aft side for any targets. John waited on the other side of the steel and bulletproof-glass security door, one hand on its handle, one foot braced against the wall.
Inside three muffled thumps sounded.
John pulled, wrenching the door and frame from the steel reinforcing in the wall.
Kurt entered, his M7 submachine gun burping three-round bursts.
John was in a moment later, and assessed the threats in the blink of an eye. There were three guards already down. Behind them, banks of security monitors showed a hundred views of the base.
Seven other men sat at a card table, shaking off the effects of the flash-bangs. They stood with their sidearms halfway out of their holsters.
John calmly shot each man, once in the head.
Kelly dropped outside the door, rolled inside, her weapon leveled.
"Security system," John whispered to her and Kurt.
Fred and Linda appeared a moment later, and together they pulled and wedged the heavy door back into its twisted frame.
"All good outside," Fred told them.
Kelly sat before the bank of monitors and pulled out a touch pad, booting the ONI computer infiltration software package.
Kurt tapped on the keyboard, nodding to the sticky note under one monitor. "Password's posted," he said, shaking his head.
"Okay," Kelly muttered. "We can do it the easy way, too. Running monitor-looping protocol, now. I'll get a clean path to the target."
Kurt meanwhile flipped through various camera angles and subsystems on the displays. "No alarms raised," he reported. He paused and watched a group of guards unloading ammunition canisters off a Warthog. One man fumbled and dropped a can; along its side was stenciled: MUTA-AP-09334.
John hadn't ordered a subsystems sweep, though he hadn't specifically forbidden it, either. Kurt's actions could trigger a red flag at the base's command and control.
John had mixed feelings about using SPARTAN-051, Kurt, as Sam's replacement on Blue Team. On the one hand, he was an extremely capable Spartan. Chief Mendez had routinely given him command of Green Team during training exercises, and Kurt had often won when facing John's Blue Team. But on the other hand, he was, for a Spartan, undisciplined. He took time to talk with every Spartan, and even the non-Spartan personnel that trained and supplied them. As a professional soldier in the middle of two wars--one fighting an entrenched rebellion, the other taking on a technologically superior xenophobic alien race--Kurt spent a considerable amount of time and energy making friends.
"Camera system and detectors looped," Kelly announced and made a tiny circle with her index finger. "We have fifteen minutes while dogs and drones are rotated and refueled. So just guards to deal with."
"Move," John told his team.
Kurt hesitated, eyes still fixed on the monitors.
"What?" John asked.
"A funny feeling," Kurt whispered.
This worried John. Everyone had performed flawlessly, and there were no signs the enemy had reacted to their presence. But Kurt had a reputation for sniffing out ambushes. John had been on the receiving end of Kurt's intuition several times during training.
John nodded at the monitor, still devoid of anything but normal activity. "Explain."
"The guards unloading that Warthog," Kurt said. "They look like . . . they're getting ready for something. Security systems and machines can be fooled--or easily rigged to fool," he stated. "People? They're not so easy."
"I understand," John said. "We'll stay sharp, but we have to stick to the schedule. Let's move."
Kurt got up, casting a glance back at the monitor as they exited the gatehouse.
The Spartans melted from shadow to shadow, skirting around a warehouse, under officers' barracks, and finally, at the center of the base, they approached the edge of a warehouse. The building was surrounded by three fences posted with warnings that the gravel yard beyond was mined.
Eight guards patrolled the perimeter. Parked on the side was a modified Warthog; it had been cut in half and a new midsection had been welded in place that looked like it could carry ten men into battle. It would suffice.
John withdrew a tiny rod and pointed it at the building. The radiation counter flickered to a hundred times normal background level for this planet.
That confirmed that their primary target was inside: three FENRIS nuclear warheads.
Recent battles with the Covenant had depleted UNSC stockpiles of fissile materials in this sector to almost nothing. Insurgents had heard of this (which indicated they also had a considerable intelligence capability), and they had contacted the regional CENTCOM to boldly offer a trade. They said they had stolen warheads. They claimed to have people with Borren's Syndrome, and wanted the expertise and medicines only UNSC doctors could provide.
CENTCOM said they'd consider the matter.
They had considered it, and sent in Blue Team to get those warheads, and if presented with the opportunity, they were to target any rebel leaders.
John signaled his team to move out, disperse around the bunker, and take up positions to snipe the guards.
Green acknowledgment lights winked on. Kurt's was last, with a palpable hesitation.
John gave Kurt a short hand wave, and then pointed at the Warthog, indicating that he get the vehicle ready to move.
Kurt's "feeling" that something was wrong was contagious. John didn't like it. He pushed his uncertainties aside. Blue Team was in position.
John unslung his sniper rifle and sighted. He gave the "go" signal and watched as one guard and then another silently fell over. Linda had been quick and efficient as usual.
John gave the go-ahead to move in.
Blue Team eased inside, sweeping the dark corners of the building.
The place was empty, save steel racks cradling three conical warhead casings. John's radiation counter jumped, indicating that they did not hold conventional explosives.
He pointed at Kelly and Fred, to the rack, then to the Warthog outside. They nodded.
Kurt's acknowledgment light winked red.
No Spartan flashed a red light on a mission unless they had a good reason.
"Abort," John said. "Back out. Now."
Dizziness washed over him.
John saw Linda, Fred, and Kelly sink to their knees.
Then blackness swallowed him.
John awoke with a start. Every muscle burned and it felt like someone had hammered his head. This was a good sign: it meant he wasn't dead.
He tensed his muscles against an unyielding pressure.
He blinked to clear his hazy vision and saw he sat propped against a wall, still in the high-security bunker.
The warheads were also still there.
Then John saw a dozen commandos in the warehouse, watching him. They hefted the .30-caliber machine gun, favored by rebel forces. Nicknamed "confetti makers," they were grossly inaccurate, but at point-blank range, it would hardly be a concern.
The rest of Blue Team lay face-first on the concrete floor. Technicians in lab coats crouched over them capturing high-resolution digital video.
John jerked against his inert armor. He had to get to his team. Were they dead?
"No need to struggle," a voice said.
A man with long gray hair stepped in front of John's faceplate. "Or struggle if you want. We've installed neural-inhibitor collars on you and your comrades. UNSC standard issue for dangerous felons." He smiled. "I'd wager without one you could, and would, rip me in half in that miraculous power armor."
John kept his mouth shut.
"Relax," the man said. "I am General Graves."
John recognized the name. Howard Graves was one of the three men believed to be in charge of the united rebel front. It was no coincidenc...