Into the Breach


LZ designated Alpha-One
10 kilometers North of Bursa, New Constantinople
August 12, 2536 — 2205 Local Time

From the tree line, Michael watched the Pelican sitting on the ground in the clearing. He’d completed his perimeter walk after landing to ensure the area around the LZ was clear. They’d avoided being spotted on their approach and landing. The plan was to stay undetected with the Pelican and her crew remaining at the LZ while Michael made for Bursa. If anyone stumbled on the Pelican, the crew’s cover story was to say they were out on training maneuvers.

The setting sun brought out the beginning long shadows of night. As Michael prepared, he checked the NAV points on his helmet navigation system. He’d planned to arrive at the town’s outskirts by nightfall. Even then there was still the possibility of civilians moving around. His planned route was to avoid the heavily trafficked areas, going through the business and industrial area, using his speed and the shadows to stay out of sight.

Michael performed one last radio check with the Pelican after that he would be run dark until he returned. Radio silence was only to be broken by either him or the Pelican crew in an emergency. This wasn’t like dropping into hot LZ against the Covenant, but he couldn’t help shaking his head at the irony of his situation.

I have to take higher security precautions running missions against my species than against the Covenant…

Again, doubts pushed into his thoughts. He brushed them aside, focusing on his mission, but still a lingering sense of what he was doing was wrong clung to him. This was no time to have judgments clouded by doubts... all that mattered right now was the mission.

As Michael pushed off towards town, he moved at a slower pace than he would have normally done. He rationalized his slow pace as being careful to avoid stumbling into any civilians and getting spotted, but there were still those doubts hovering at the back of his thoughts. Because of his slower pace, he reached the outskirts of Bursa later than planned for, but luckily still within mission tolerances. Despite his tardiness, he gained one benefit... now that it was later; it was now darker with fewer people about the streets.

With one eye on his motion sensors, he moved towards his destination...

Arden Muyser swayed as he stomped up the steps to his walk-up apartment. It was the end of the evening of doing what he did almost every night... drinking at the local bar. His–usual heavy–drinking reached new levels with the excuse now being all the celebrations taking place with the Covenant defeated and driven from the planet. It took a few tries to get his keys in the lock as he fumbled with them. He finally got the door open and staggered into his apartment.

As he stumbled to the bedroom, a part of him noted the always messy apartment and chided himself that he should do something about it. He filed away the never kept promise of cleaning up as he reached the bedroom, tossing his key on the dresser just inside the door. With years of practice, he shed his coat and kicked off his shoes, leaving them where they fell as he collapsed on his bed.

It didn’t take long for Arden to drift off and begin snoring. He awoke startled as something clamped across his face interrupting his alcohol-fueled dreams.

Despite his alcohol-induced stupor, Arden was aware enough of his surroundings for his eyes to pop open wide. He looked up to a nightmare that was placing its armored gloved hand across his mouth. His eyes locked on to his terrified face reflecting in the gold visor of this nightmare’s helmet.

Out of instinct, Arden tried to lift his head and struggle, but the hand clamped over his mouth held his head in place as if he was nothing. It was then that the panic set in and he thrashed, trying to scream for help. His desperate attempts ended, and he froze as the cold metal feeling of something sharp pressed against his throat. Arden’s eyes widen as the fear and panic took over his body. He wasn’t even aware of the warm liquid spreading across and pooling under him. If he hadn’t pissed himself already, he would have as the gold-visor nightmare spoke in a hushed voice.


Frustration filled Michael as he arrived at his destination and discovered his target wasn’t home. He cursed himself for taking too long to get to town, but would wait around as long as possible to see if there was any change. It seemed like hours before his target staggered up in an obvious intoxicated state. He waited for the target to get into his apartment and settle down. Michael noted the lack of lights and waited a few minutes longer. When he made his move, there was no problem forcing the door without being detected. He moved through the apartment towards the bedroom.

Now, he studied his target that looked up at him with panic-filled eyes. The man’s terror and shock were obvious with Michael’s left hand firmly clamped over Muyser’s mouth, pinning his head in place. The blade edge of his combat knife pressed against his target’s throat, not enough to cut or leave a permanent mark, but enough to get the message across.

Michael spoke in a hushed voice, “Be quiet… I’m going to ask you a few questions. Nod, if you understand?”

The man’s head struggled to nod under the Spartan’s hand. Michael removed his hand from the man’s mouth, but kept the combat knife against the man’s throat to ensure his target’s compliance.

“Okay… Your name is Arden Muyser?”

After several attempts the terrified man croaked out a response, “Y-Yesss…”

“You know Barton Jackson?”

Michael noted the man’s eyes widen at the question. When Muyser hesitated responding, Michael pushed the edge of his blade harder against the man’s throat to show he wasn’t in a mood for games and wanted answers. It took only a moment for the seriousness of the situation to sink in further and Muyser nodded slowly, taking into account the knife being held against his throat.

“Y-Yeah… I-I know him,” Muyser’s voice cracked again, trying to lick his dry lips.

“Where can I find him?”

Muyser tried to dodge the question, “H-He… He moves around a lot… D-Doesn’t stay in the same place very long.”

Michael easily read the stalling tactic. His voice took on a more menacing tone, “Where is he? Don’t make me ask again.”

Muyser wasn’t a brave man to begin with. What will to resist and bravery crumbled as he saw no choice, “H-Honest… I-I don’t know where he is right now! H-He… He has a woman here in town. He stays with her one maybe two days every couple of weeks. P-Please! I’m telling you everything! If Jackson wants something he contacts me! I don’t contact him… Please don’t hurt me!”

A brief sense of satisfaction washed over Michael, seeing Muyser broken without having to resort to harsher methods, “I want a name and address for this woman?”

The shame of betrayal caused Muyser to hesitate as he tried to find some backbone and resolve. The knife pressing again against his neck crushed any rally as survival and self-preservation took over.

“Name… Address… Now!” Michael growled.

Muyser’s throat felt as dry as the desert, but he found enough saliva to answer, “O-Okay… O-Okay… H-Her name is Susan Currie. S-She lives on the north-side of town. Small house… Her address is…”

Michael studied the man as he babbled out the woman’s address and details of woman. The fear in the Muyser’s eyes told him the man wasn’t lying. It wasn’t a location for Jackson, but it was a lead... a slim lead he could follow-up. It was time to get back to the LZ and the Pelican. Michael could use the dropship’s encrypted communications to pull more information from planetary databases on this Currie woman.

There appeared to be a small window of opportunity opening to locate and maybe catch Jackson, but there was a more immediate problem to deal with. What now to do with Arden Muyser.

Hauling his prisoner back to the Pelican was problematic. If Muyser went missing, this might draw attention from the Innies and warn Jackson. Also, just slitting his throat would also draw unwanted attention. He needed to remove the possibility of his prisoner warning Jackson that he was being tracked. This would have to be something quieter and more subtle to not draw any immediate attention or at least generate uncertainty and doubt until Michael could follow-up on Currie.

Michael hesitated looking down at Muyser, seeing the terror that gripped the man. It wasn’t too long ago that he wouldn’t have hesitated over what he needed to do. An icy sensation seemed to form at the core of his being as he stared at the helpless, terrified man. Michael’s training and indoctrination kicked in... there was only one choice. The mission couldn’t be put at risk, and ONI was quite explicit on how he was to deal with Innies.

He brushed away the hesitation and icy sensation, and placed his left hand back over the man’s mouth, clamping over it. Muyser’s muffled cries for help and desperate struggling were useless against the Spartan’s strength. As Michael shutout the man’s thrashing and muffled cries his other hand covered Muyser’s nose... cutting off his air.

Muyser’s eyes bulged in terror as he realized what was happening and flailed his arms. He struck at the Spartan’s arms and body to break his grip on him. These were like a fly trying to beat down an elephant as the blows bounced off Michael’s armor, not affecting his grip or the pressure he applied.

Michael’s eyes locked on Muyser’s eyes as the fear and panic drained away with his life. The thrashing and flailing weakened and slowed... then stopped as the man’s arms fell to the bed. Michael saw by the eyes that Muyser was dead, but held on for another minute to be sure. With his target now “neutralized” Michael stepped back and checked the bedroom. He was an expert at being a ghost and sanitized the apartment to make it like he was never there. His next moves were to return to the LZ and the Pelican, get some rest and gather more information on this lead.

At the apartment door, Michael opened it and scanned the street for any potential threats. Civilian traffic was almost non-existent now at this late hour. As he exited, he unexpectedly paused. The earlier icy feeling returned as he glanced back towards the bedroom. He fought off the strange sensation, pushing himself out the door back into the night. The darkness swallowed him up as he headed away from the apartment and the man he’d murdered.

It was still dark and the Pelican crew was asleep inside the dropship when Michael arrived back at the LZ. He decided not to wake the crew. He wasn’t ready or in the mood to face the stares of others as the same icy feeling hung over him the whole trip back to the LZ. When the crew woke up, he would update them. They would be here at least one more day.

Michael moved to the tree line, finding a spot to sit. Relaxation was impossible right now as adrenaline pumped through him. He hooked his battle armor’s comm system into the Pelican’s communication system. From there he relayed into the main UNSC communications network to pull up information on Susan Currie. She was now his only–and best–lead to tracking down Jackson.

He confirmed Muyser’s information and searched for background information on the woman. Nothing stood out and there were no flags on her records. Apparently, she stayed away from politics and had no run-ins with the law. There was nothing to show a direct connection to Jackson, but she was a single mother of two children. Bank records showed no unusual activity on withdrawals and spending. There were entries for regular monthly deposits coming from a number of sources, but they were small enough to not raise any red flags. A search of the birth records for the children listed no father’s name. This got Michael wondering.

They have to be his kids... He’s sending them money to support them... That’s why the visits.

Michael pulled up a map of the town to locate Currie’s house. His mind was already working on scenarios to exploit this info to find Jackson or at least flush him out. The picture of Currie and her children, displayed on his helmet HUD, caused Michael to pause as memories of Anders and now Muyser flooded back.

His thoughts taunted him, How far will you go? they kept repeating.

ONI would accept Currie and her children as “acceptable casualties” if it came to that. Michael dropped those scenarios and the icy feeling gripping him seemed to subside.

“I’ll make it work,” he muttered. He wasn’t leaving himself too many options, but he realized there were some lines he wouldn’t cross.

Maybe I’ll get lucky...

The sun was rising, and his audio sensors picked up the sounds of the Pelican crew waking up. With more information and a plan to investigate the house, it was time to think about other things. He would brief the Pelican crew after breakfast and then get some sleep.

With the sun setting, Michael checked his equipment and weapons after getting something to eat. He fought back a yawn as a map scrolled across his helmet display, outlining his approach route to tonight’s target. He’d tried to sleep, but nightmares bothered his dreams again. Anders… Muyser… all the faces of those humans he’d killed in pursuit on ONI’s directives paraded in his dreams. Even the face of the first man he’d killed returned to haunt him. He hadn’t thought of the insurrectionist leader on Jericho VII he’d taken out with a sniper rifle in years.

Michael brushed his tiredness and the memories away to focus on his current mission. He’d briefed the Pelican crew and brought them up to date on the mission’s current status. They seemed to be taking it all in stride and they were more than content to spend another day of sitting around. This was a vacation to them compared to trying to fly into a hot landing zone.

It was time to head to town. He would need more time to get to his objective tonight as the house was further away on the north side of the town. A sense of trepidation filled Michael as he headed out, but he hoped that luck would be on his side tonight.

In the deep shadows, Michael studied the house that was his target. He’d avoided being spotted by the local population and lucked into finding a spot to observe the house without worry of being spotted. The lights inside the house remained on, and as the time dragged the anxiousness and frustration returned.

He didn’t want to risk approaching the house, but he needed to get an idea of what was going on inside. He activated the thermal optic vision built into his helmet visor. Four large thermal signatures, showing people flashed inside the house. Michael studied the thermal signatures as they moved through the house and determined that the two smaller signatures must be the children. The two remaining signatures must be adults and one of them was Currie. That meant the remaining adult signature was...

Jackpot! I guess luck is smiling down on me!

Knowing his target was inside the house swept away any frustration and impatience. Entry into the house wouldn’t be a problem. With children inside that added a complication, but Michael was sure he could be in and out, grabbing Jackson before anyone noticed. It was now just a matter of watching and waiting until everyone went to bed.

Barton Jackson savored the precious moment as he settled into bed with his wife. The life of an outlaw and insurrectionist was not best suited for raising a family. He’d spent years on the fringes, just staying ahead of the law and the UNSC, running shady and questionable business dealings along with working with the insurrectionists. He hadn’t planned on any future until he met Susan. It was a chance meeting as they were complete opposites... him involved with the insurrection and she apolitical. Falling in love and having kids changed his life and his perspective. Now, he really had something worth fighting for other than just money or lofty political rhetoric and ideals.

The risks he was running were great, and he’d taken as many precautions as possible to protect her and the kids. She knew about his involvement with the insurrection, but he kept her in the dark about his activities. It was one thing if the UNSC and ONI caught up with him as he’d always known the risks and accepted them for himself. It was a completely different situation when it involved Susan and the kids.

Jackson realized the risk he posed to his family, and he tried to stay away, but the kids–Dylan was six and Diana was two–were growing up fast. The thought of not being there for them and Susan caused him to risk these visits. The guilt of not being there grew even more pronounced with the Covenant invasion. What the Covenant did to the outer colonies made him fearful for his family’s safety and survival.

He’d been using every one of his contacts, calling in favors and pulling whatever strings to get his family evacuated. He thought everything was in place. His deal with Kevin Anders to move a huge quantity of stolen UNSC supplies was to guarantee getting his and Anders’s family off planet.

That deal fell apart with the destruction of the supplies along with Anders’s business and his disappearance. There was the suspicion that maybe Anders cut a deal with the UNSC. This seemed more so after his family got on the evacuation list and shipped to Reach, but there was no sign of Anders anywhere.

Jackson kept an extra eye out for any UNSC activity since Anders’s disappearance. Some off-world insurrectionist cells along with a number of his contacts were no longer talking or responding. Despite the UNSC putting a dent in the insurgency there was nothing to indicate they were on his trail or targeting him. Today’s news reporting about one of his intown contacts–Arden Muyser–being dead worried him though. What information he could dig up was calling the death as “non-suspicious” as it appeared he died of natural causes... a heart attack. Jackson knew Muyser was a heavy drinker, so it wasn’t surprising he would die in his sleep one day, but there was still a nagging thought. He would have to follow up on this to make sure that nothing was going on.

At least with the UNSC defeating the Covenant invasion it removed the immediate threat to his family and lifted a huge weight from him. Though he would never admit it publicly, he’d cheered for the UNSC. This time they did something else than try to quash a bunch of people trying to fight for their freedom. Jackson was a careful man, and he recognized even with the Covenant defeated they now knew the planet’s location. Only a complete fool would believe they wouldn’t return, and he planned to get him and his family off planet before their return. He was making another deal to arrange for their passage on a transport. It would be easier now with the planet not an active war zone. If everything went as planned they would be out of here in a couple of weeks.

His thoughts were a jumble as he drifted off to sleep. He pushed worries about the UNSC, ONI and the insurrection as the memories of spending time with Susan and the kids filled him with a peaceful feeling. A small noise startled Jackson awake. The years of living on the edge would have put him on guard, but being with his family lowered his defenses and he let his guard down. He stumbled out of bed thinking one of the kids was awake and out of bed.

A low scrapping sound drew Jackson as he stumbled down the hallway half-asleep. It was only when he entered the kitchen/living room, not seeing any kids and no lights that his survival instincts belatedly kicked in. He cursed his carelessness as he tried to turn back towards the bedroom, but it was too late! In one move, a gloved hand from behind clasped over his mouth and a cold sharp metal blade was pressing against his throat.

“Shhhh…” a hushed voice said from behind Jackson.

Jackson knew enough about fighting that the thought of resisting flashed in his thoughts. The thought slipped away as he realized that he couldn’t break the grip of the hand against his mouth... and then there was the knife blade.

“Answer my questions, and you may have a chance,” the voice said.

A sense of dread filled Jackson as he realized he was helpless. He didn’t kid himself, if this was ONI there was next to no chance of him walking away. He was more than aware of the stories of what ONI did to Innies they took into custody. Even as his chance to stay alive fell, keeping his family alive and safe came to the forefront. There was still a chance he could find a way out, but he needed to buy some time as he nodded slowly with the knife pressed against his neck.

“You’re Barton Jackson?” the voice asked.

Jackson paused for a second considering the question. There was the brief thought of lying, but he got the sense that whoever was here was testing to see how he would respond. It wouldn’t be a good choice to start with a lie.

“Y-Yeah… I’m Jackson,” Barton croaked out, finding his throat suddenly dry.

Jackson’s mind was still racing looking for options and opportunities to turn the situation to his advantage. That changed as he glimpsed his captor’s reflection in the microwave door.

“My god,” Jackson muttered as his hopes drained away at seeing the huge armored figure in the reflection.

“I want your Innie contacts! Where are the cells located?” the voice demanded in a menacing growl.

There was only shock as Jackson didn’t know what to do or say. For a moment, he thought he was having a nightmare, but the sharp pressure of the knife blade against his throat brought down the reality of his situation. It took a moment, but he found his voice and was going to reply when a young boy’s voice called out from behind.

“Don’t hurt my daddy!” the scared, yet determined voice cried out.

Jackson’s worse nightmare was playing out as his captor spun him–effortlessly–towards his son. Any lingering thoughts of resisting or fighting back vanished as he got a sense of his captor’s strength.

So much for trying to overpower him or whatever this thing is...

Desperation and panic filled Jackson looking at his son standing in front of him striking a defiant stance. In that moment he realized he would sell his soul... sign anything... do anything to protect his family... all that mattered was their safety. He knew if his captor was any kind of professional then his son was in danger. Jackson tensed himself to try to fight the intruder even knowing he was at a severe disadvantage... his life didn’t matter.

Things took an unexpected turn when nothing happened and a strange Mexican standoff took place. Jackson didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or scream as his armored captor faced off against his son. Despite the surreal moment, he realized this standoff couldn’t last forever... it would only end badly.

Jackson took a desperate gamble as he found his voice. He struggled to keep it calm and in control as he spoke, “Dylan… I want you to turn around and go back to your room and shut the door.”

“Let go of my daddy!′ Dylan cried as his voice rose. Luckily, they were far enough from the bedrooms to not wake anyone else, but that wouldn’t last forever. Jackson couldn’t help but note the stubborn expression on his son’s face. He saw himself in his son’s face. An image of his son’s dead body lying on the ground flashed in his head, and his fear and dread grew. There were no options or choices... there was only one way out.

“Whatever you want to know… I’ll tell you… Just don’t hurt my son or family,” Jackson whispered in a desperate voice, hoping his captor could hear him.

There was no security to prevent Michael from entering the house. Everyone was asleep as he moved through the house getting familiar with the layout. He’d gotten a glimpse of the man asleep in bed and confirmed his identify as Barton Jackson. To grab Jackson wasn’t the problem, it was grabbing him without drawing too much undue attention to it. With the family in the house, Michael was sure he could use them as leverage to get Jackson to talk. The plan was how to do this without the whole operation turning into a bloody mess. He planned on drawing out Jackson, the woman or both into the kitchen and subduing them. From there he could either interrogate Jackson here or remove him to another site.

Everything was going according to plan as Jackson stumbled down the hallway. What Michael hadn’t counted on was one of the children waking up and confronting him. He realized with the child awake, the situation was in danger of spiraling out of control. Neither one of them was a physical threat... it was the attention they could draw. Even though ONI could be callous, they still wanted these types of mission kept quiet... it wasn’t good for public morale. It was strange as everyone knew the UNSC and ONI did these types activities, they wanted to pretend they didn’t happen.

To add to this mess, Jackson was now begging him to not hurt his family. This was decision time... he could drag his prisoner away or the whole situation could get worse as the boy’s cries could wake the mother and the other child. What would he do then...?

How far will you go?

The words taunted him. All the training and indoctrination trained him to be one of the best soldiers ever. Yet, he faced down a boy trying to protect his father. As he studied the boy, he couldn’t help but notice the boy was close to the age he was when taken for the Spartan program. The memory of Kevin Anders’s face as he died flashed in his thoughts. He’d killed him and left his children fatherless. How many children had he made fatherless because he followed ONI’s mission imperatives?

How far will you go?

The icy sensation inside him returned as he stood there holding a knife to a man’s throat, staring down a child. He realized what he was feeling was guilt. Memories of fighting the Covenant and the sense of purpose that filled him flashed in his thoughts. Then, he was fighting to protect humans from those that would kill them. Now, he was hiding in the shadows, taking fathers away from their sons.

How far will you go?

Time lost all meaning as Michael found himself at a crossroads. He knew Jackson’s involvement with the insurrection made him guilty in the UNSC’s and ONI’s eyes. A part of Michael struggled against his training and indoctrination as his memory recalled all the military history lessons and classes. His memory pulled on something Doctor Halsey said once to a question asked by one of the other candidates. She’d replied to the question about facing a desperate situation with no clear or good choices. He could hear her voice in his mind.

“Desperate times, calls for desperate measures... sometimes you have to take the chance to win in the end.”

ONI was explicit in their orders of what he was to do with Jackson, but what if they were wrong? Jackson was willing to talk to protect his family... did he have to kill if he could get the information? Did he have to obey orders he knew were wrong?

How far will you go?

All this raced through his mind in seconds as he stared at the young boy. Michael realized that because he was a Spartan that made him unique. Being a Spartan should guide what his duty was, and where his obligations lay...

Jackson tried to keep his rising panic and fear in control. In his gut he knew this would end badly for him and his family. Images of his wife and children lying dead in their rooms flashed in his head. Desperation was about to force his hand, but surprise and shock came as the pressure from the knife against his throat suddenly lessened. Jackson stood frozen as his captor pulled the knife away from his throat. A foolish thought whispered for him to use this opportunity to attack. He dismissed it quickly because he didn’t know what was happening. His surprise grew as this intruder spoke to his son.

“It’s okay… Your father is helping the UNSC… He’s just going to help me, and then I’m going to leave.”

A skeptically boy eyed the scene still unsure of what was happening. Rather than let this opportunity get away, Jackson took his cue, “Y-Yes… Yes… I-I’m just going to assist my UNSC friend here. Now, go back to bed, Dylan,” he said, nodding his head vigorously.

Like most young boys, he watched the vidcasts showing the UNSC Marines and navy fighting back to protect everyone from the dreaded and scary Covenant aliens. The boy’s face lit up in surprise as his excitement took root, “Are you helping to fight those aliens?” he asked, his voice filled with growing boyish excitement.

Before Jackson could answer the intruder replied, “Yes… Your dad is helping me to fight the Covenant. Now listen to your father and go to bed. We have important top secret UNSC business to discuss.”

Dylan always wondered why his father only was around for a few days and then disappear for long periods of time. Now, he knew the answer... his father worked for the UNSC doing top secret work against the Covenant!

Jackson could barely stand, watching as his son hurried back to his room. He didn’t bother hiding his audible sigh of relief, hearing his son’s bedroom door close. Relief and confusion filled him he didn’t feel the soldier’s grip on him loosen. Rather than fight or run away, Jackson turned to face the soldier, the confusion clear on his face. He now got a better look at the armored soldier. Any thoughts or ideas of resisting or running away seemed useless against this huge man that almost looked like a robot.

Despite all the fear, panic and confusion, Jackson was able to manage a question, “W-Why?” he asked in a stunned relieved voice.

“Because it’s the right thing to do…”

Michael knew there would be repercussions from his actions. He wasn’t scared of them and would deal with whatever happened... he was still a Spartan. His reply to Jackson’s question seemed natural and right. As he answered the icy sensation in him faded, and he felt like a weight was lifting off his soul.

ONI can go screw themselves… I’ll complete the missions the way I see fit, he thought as a smirk flashed. He’d made his decision and now it was time to deal with the situation.

This is the right thing to do…

“T-Thank you…” Jackson stuttered still in shock at how events were turning.

“Don’t thank me for anything yet! Here is how things are going to go down. I will ask my questions, and you will tell me everything you know. After that, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again... Do you understand me?” Michael cautioned.

“Y-Yes…” Jackson responded, nodding his head.

“If I find out that you’ve lied to me or deliberately held anything back… There is nowhere in this galaxy you can hide that I won’t find you. If I have to hunt you down… I will show no mercy… Do we have an understanding?” Michael growled in a low menacing voice to emphasis his point.

Jackson nodded again vigorously to show his understanding.

“Okay then, let’s get started,” Michael said, directing Jackson to take a seat at the kitchen table.

The questioning lasted for two hours as they covered everything that ONI wanted. It was a windfall of information as Jackson even surprised Michael by offering information on things even ONI wasn’t aware of. The audio and video systems in Michael’s battle armor captured everything. Michael couldn’t help the sense of self-satisfaction at this treasure trove of intel. Jackson coughed up information not only on New Constantinople, but also on insurgent activities in another six systems! There would have to be some creative editing done on the audio and video before being forwarded to ONI. Michael wanted to cover his tracks, so ONI wouldn’t get wind of what happened here tonight.

ONI might eventually catch up to him, but I’ve given him a chance... It won’t be me doing the hatchet job…

Michael took a moment to consider his actions and the potential repercussions. During training and indoctrination, he’d been the loner… the rebel or as much as one could get among the Spartan candidates. Not that he didn’t follow orders. It was more of he would do the task or mission as he saw fit to get it done. The running joke among the Spartan candidates became that if something wasn’t done as ordered CPO Mendez immediately yelled at Michael. He always relished the challenge of how far he could push things. Now, he was pushing back at ONI. He would do the mission, but as he saw fit to complete it.

His attention returned to Jackson, sitting slumped in the chair. Michael noted how exhausted and drained Jackson appeared, “Is that everything?” he asked.

Jackson’s voice mirrored how he looked as it sounded hollow and empty, “Yeah… That’s everything… That’s all of it.”

Jackson couldn’t believe he betrayed the insurgency and everything he’d worked and sacrificed for over the years in just a couple of hours. Inside him anger, guilt, fear, shame and uncertainty hammered at him, but what choice or options did he have other than sacrificing his family? That was one price he wasn’t willing to pay. He realized he’d save his family tonight, but what about tomorrow? ONI might let him go, but the insurgency would never forgive his betrayal. He knew from tonight on the Innies would mark them all for death.

Michael seemed read his thoughts, “Okay… you and your family are going to pack up, leave this planet and disappear.”

“H-How?” he asked, staring at Michael in surprise and disbelief.

“Gather your family and head to the evacuation center in Antioch, ASAP. You’ll check in using your wife’s surname... your names will be on the evacuation list for Reach. You’re pretty good at staying off the grid, so from there you and your family can disappear. Make sure you only take what you can carry, and you talk to no one!”

As Jackson nodded his understanding, Michael considered his plan. The only problem with his brilliant plan was that there was no plan or arrangements in place to get Jackson and his family off planet. He was making things up on the fly, and it was a flash of inspiration to have them go to Antioch. By using the wife’s surname that would buy some time and not draw attention to them. The evacuation center would give him a way to manage their exit route and contact them. Michael’s brain flew as he put together what the plan would need to get the family off planet without drawing attention from both ONI and the insurgents. A sense of apprehension grew knowing he would have to call on Vice-Admiral Whitcomb for another favor. There was just a whisper of doubt of how the Vice-Admiral would take his request. The other option was to get creative with his ONI security clearances, either way he would make this happen.

Jackson stared at the soldier as he tried to come to grips at what he was experiencing. He felt himself adrift by his betrayal and barely able to function. By all rights, he should be dead now or on his way to one of ONI’s deep dark holes, but now there was a glimmer of hope. His thoughts raced about how he would explain all this to his wife along with getting everyone ready to leave. The soldier heading towards the door caught him off-guard.

A part of Jackson hadn’t expected the soldier to keep his word, “T-Thanks… Thank you,” he croaked out in genuine appreciation and relief. His eyes widen in surprise as the huge armored soldier–whose face he never saw behind that gold-visor helmet–turn and give him a nod back.

Michael made good time back to the clearing and the dropship. Despite the problems he still had to solve to get Jackson and his family off planet, a sense of optimism and purpose filled him. The last time he experienced this kind of sense of purpose was when he was fighting the Covenant.

He made it back to the LZ with no problems, and not wanting to waste any time, roused the Pelican crew for an immediate dust-off. There were the usual grumblings and griping, but the crew didn’t argue with the Spartan. Michael used the return flight to iron out his plan’s details along with figuring out how he was going to ask the Vice-Admiral for another favor.

The sun was rising when the Pelican arrived back at the firebase. Despite the lack of sleep, an energized Michael jumped from the dropship as it was touching down. There was no time to waste as he skipped going to the armory, heading straight back to his quarters. He knew it was early, but needed to get the call into the Vice-Admiral and then he could work on his “report” to ONI. He’d figure out how to fit in food and sleep into his schedule later.

The first hurdle for Michael to overcome was getting past Vice-Admiral’s chief of staff... Commander Wright. The Commander wasn’t going to patch the call through, but he would relay a message. That wasn’t good enough for Michael as time was a factor. He decided to gamble big time...

“This is a high-priority ONI situation! I need to talk immediately to the Vice-Admiral!” Michael said, emphasizing the urgency and ONI’s involvement. Michael wasn’t that familiar with poker, but right now he was pushing a weak hand with the best poker face in place.

Commander Wright studied the Spartan on his screen. He got the sense that the Spartan was trying to run a game on him, but at the same time he was flashing ONI’s name around. It wasn’t a good decision–even for an Admiral’s chief of staff–to get in the way or impede ONI. Finally, seeing he wasn’t going dissuade or intimidate the Spartan, he decided to let the call through, “All right… I’ll put you through,” Wright replied with a shrug.

Michael took a deep breath to focus as his call routed through to the Vice-Admiral. His poker face was in full play as he explained–omitting or changing several facts–the situation to the Vice-Admiral. He studied Whitcomb on the screen as he stressed that his request was important and in the best interests of the UNSC.

There was a long pause, and Michael knew Whitcomb was evaluating his story while not betraying any sign of what he would decide. The Vice-Admiral finally broke the silence.

“You must be mistaking me as your own personal travel agent!” Whitcomb said, shaking his head at what was being requested.

Michael doubled-down and went all in with his request, “Sir, this family is a high-valued ONI asset. There is an imminent Innie threat to them! We need to get them off-planet, but we can’t make a big show out of it.”

Whitcomb shook his head again and a sense of foreboding grew. The Vice-Admiral’s mouth twitched upward, “I don’t know what kind of ONI black bag job you’re running, and I don’t want to know. To be honest, I think you’re pulling something, but rather than create myself more work and headaches I’m going to play ignorant and grant your request, Sierra-113.”

Michael couldn’t stop the small smile as he came to attention and saluted, “Thank you, sir!” he said, unable to hide the happiness and relief in his voice.

Again, the Vice-Admiral shook his head slowly, but this time the twitch turned into a small smile.

Michael moved to end the video call, but Whitcomb added one more thing, “Sierra-113… Next time you go out on one of your ONI jaunts. Can you kindly not commit myself and UNSC resources to being your own personal taxi service... or at least give me a heads-up of what you’ve got planned. Understood?”

Despite Whitcomb’s smile, Michael caught the underlying message in the Vice-Admiral’s tone, “Crystal clear, sir!” he replied.

With the video call over, Michael let out a huge sigh of relief. With this major hurdle solved, things were falling into place. A new found sense of optimism filled him.

Things are turning out for the good, Michael thought, standing up to stretch.

He still had to edit the audio and video from Jackson before sending it on to ONI. Instead, he rewarded himself by going to grab a bite to eat first. Then, to the armory to get out of his battle armor and an equipment check. After that it would be creative writing time for ONI, and then he could look at getting sleep. His adrenaline and energy were flowing from how good things were coming together that he didn’t know if he could sleep. Yet, he sensed that when he fell asleep, he would have a good sleep or at least better than he’d been experiencing.

In retrospect, Michael would look back and kick himself for having been so upbeat about how things were going, jinxing everything.

At the outer edge of the New Constantinople system, an area of space shimmered and distorted as the fabric of existence started to tear itself apart. These distortions were harbingers trumpeting that death would arrive soon…

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