- Dusk Till Dawn -
- Cryo pod -
- 1 hour before exiting Slipspace -
The Master Chief has never had trouble sleeping before. He understands how important it is to get rest and keeping his mind sharp for the next battle; but after everything that has happened, his sleep was disturbed by nightmares.
He dreamed of those lethal alien creatures sneaking through the long night, snatching and killing everyone around him. He tried to rescue them but he was too late to stop it. He could only watch as his comrades gave birth to more Xenomorphs. The infant monsters emerge from the chests of Marines, Elites and fellow Spartans cocooned to the walls. John-117 couldn't do anything to stop or kill the beasts.
After the chestbursters slithered away, the hive was silent and still, until the heads of every corpse on the walls turned towards him. Their lifeless eyes stare accusingly at him, silently demanding why he couldn't complete his mission and save them. Tentacles grew inside their hollow chests and the carcasses screamed before breaking out of the hive and charging him as Combat Forms.
He tried to fight them off but there were too many of them in the tunnel. He was completely surrounded and had no weapon. A piercing shriek drowns out the howls of the Flood and a Metroid appears. Its mandibles clamp onto the Chief's helmet and he gets a terrifying view of the creature's maw as it sucks the life energy from him. He knows exactly what that feels like and he can suddenly see Samus with feral eyes. She's gripping his throat and absorbing his life.
These and similar dreams haunted the Chief throughout the journey back to Earth. The worst nightmares came near the end when he had visions of Cortana in pain, just like he did when she was at the mercy of the Gravemind.
To John's relief, his eyes finally open when he wakes up from cryo sleep. He pushes out his dreams and fears now that he is conscious. He has to keep his guard up and focus whenever he's awake, no matter the circumstances or where he is.
He steps out from the cryo pod and the technicians run him through the usual suit diagnostics. His fellow Spartans are also waking up. Empty cryo pods cover the walls. Some belong to Marine and Navy personnel who have already awoken, but most of them are vacant due to how they gave their lives so that the rest of them could survive.
They fought bravely and did their duty. John made sure they wouldn't be forgotten.
Once his shield is recharged, the Master Chief regroups with the other Spartans and makes sure their suits are still functioning as well and their status is in the green.
The intercom comes online.
"Master Chief, report to the briefing room ASAP,"
John immediately complies and makes his way through the ship. He passes by Navi personnel who were lucky enough to avoid stepping onto the surface of the planet but they bear injuries from one of the ship-to-ship battles that took place.
Many of them step aside as he approaches and stand at attention.
"At ease," the Spartan tells them.
Arriving at the appropriate door, it opens for him and he enters a small amphitheatre with a hologram projector in the centre. Making his way down, he sees several people waiting for him including Commander King, four ONI officers with Captain Dare among them, the AI Iona and Samus Aran.
"Glad you're here, Chief," Dare says when she sees him. "Aran has promised to brief us in on the events that took place in the Library before you and your team arrived,"
Samus scans the nearest terminal and sends in data for the presentation. The holographic projector comes online and reveals a small floating orb with a camera lens for an eye.
"That's not a Monitor, is it?" The Chief asks. He's seen at least two Forerunner Monitors in his career and this machine doesn't resemble either of them.
Samus shakes her head without taking her eyes off the projection.
"This was following me around through the Library, watching me. I didn't get a good look until I got past the energy field at the centre of the facility. I recognized this device instantly, because it was watching me throughout my childhood while I was growing up,"
"What is it?" John asks.
"The interface for an organic supercomputer called Mother Brain,"
"Organic?" First Lieutenant Carl Gordon objects. "That's impossible,"
"Not true," Dare says. "The Engineers are machines but they perfectly resemble organic life forms,"
Iona says, "When I encountered this Mother Brain, it appeared as a construct within the Forerunner network, but it didn't behave like an AI. It was full of rage and almost acted like an animal, but it was focused and went straight for the quarantine protocol. It almost erased me when I tried to stop it. I admit that I freaked out a little,"
"No doubt it was trying to trap us and almost succeeded," Commander King says, clearly still unhappy with the idea of his ship nearly cut off from space.
"From what I glimpsed, Mother Brain was more advanced than any AI we've ever built," Iona admits begrudgingly.
"How can it be organic if it's a construct?" John asks Samus.
Samus shakes her head.
"I don't know. There's something different about her now,"
"We'll need all the intel you have on her, as well as the data you recovered from the Library," Dare says.
The bounty hunter looks at the captain.
"Very well, but you are not going to like what I found,"
"I'd be surprised if we did," the Chief says.
- - -
Once the meeting is over, Samus returns to the hangar where her gunship awaits. Several technicians are staring at the small yellow craft in awe and curiosity as they walk around it. They immediately part and get back to work when they see the armoured figure walking towards it.
The lift drops down and rises back up once Samus steps onto it. Sitting in the seat of her cockpit, she brings her ship's flight systems online as she prepares to leave when a message scrolls across the screen.
The familiar holographic form of an AI appears in front of her.
"Samus, is the Chief ok?" she asks.
"He's fine," Samus reassures her.
Cortana appears relieved to hear that. For the briefest moment, however, she flashes red and her eyes fill with anger when looking at Samus. She returns to normal and Samus tries changing the topic.
"We should be orbiting Earth shortly,"
"That's good, but Samus, there's something I need to talk to you about,"
Samus listens as Cortana tells her about the encounter with the enemy construct. She doesn't appear surprised until Cortana tells her about the other presence that confronted Mother Brain. Whatever her thoughts, Samus keeps them to herself.
Cortana adopts a smug expression and says,
"I've saved the best for last. I was able to extract coordinates from that bitch before she attacked me. I'm 90% certain these lead to the new Space Pirate fortress,"
Samus becomes fully alert. She's about to contact the Dusk Till Dawn when she looks at Cortana and asks her,
"Why didn't you tell us that the planet we were on was a Shield World?"
The AI's enthusiasm drops when Samus changes the subject. She looks away and says grudgingly,
"ONI wanted as few people as possible to know in order to prevent the Covenant from finding out,"
"Why didn't you tell John?"
Cortana's smile returns and she replies, "I told them he would figure it out,"
"But you lied to ONI, and I'm glad you did. They were expecting to find the means of building other Shield Worlds,"
Cortana asks seriously, "You know, don't you?"
"So does Mother Brain,"
- - -
Once the Dusk Till Dawn is repaired and several other ships are called in, the UNSC prepares for payback against the Space Pirates.
Aboard Nassau Station, the Master Chief spars with Kelly inside the orbital facility's cargo bay. The rest of Blue Team prepare and organize equipment for their eventual deployment.
John feels more comfortable than he has felt in a long time. He's back in UNSC controlled space with his closest teammates and getting ready for another mission. The nightmares that plagued his mind on the trip back have started to fade away, but they are not gone.
The door to the training room opens up and Samus walks through. Cortana's hologram appears on a terminal and watches the Spartans practice.
"If you two are through denting each other's armour, I'd like to share something interesting," the AI says.
The Spartans give the bounty hunter nods of acknowledgement before everyone gathers around Cortana.
"Command has received word from Thel 'Vadam. He's alive, kicking and reclaimed his title of Arbiter,"
The tension in the Master Chief's shoulders loosen slightly. His only visible sign of relief.
"Anything else?" he asks.
Cortana crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow.
"I was getting to that. He's currently trying to put a lid on the chaos that resulted when his makeshift Covenant collapsed, but when we told him about the possible location of the Space Pirate fortress, he said that he would spare fifty ships in his fleet to aid us in purging them. The Fleetmaster is none other than an old friend of ours, N'tho 'Sraom,"
"Did Command clear you to brief us in or did you find our on your own?" John asks.
Cortana shrugs. "Does it really matter at this point, Chief?"
Samus turns to the Spartans. "If this is where we'll find the Space Pirates, then we need to be ready in case there are Enhanced or Alpha units among them,"
"Go on," the Chief says and listens.
"From past experience, we have the best chances of defeating them together. I can take away their excess life energy but they are fast, strong, highly trained, well equipped and coordinated. I couldn't take on two Alpha units by myself and John was almost killed when he fought their leader," she says.
The Master Chief nods in agreement. He would be an idiot if he tried to deny it.
"We might get separated on this mission but we should send out an alert to regroup if we find any of their special forces," she suggests.
"Let me worry about that," John says.
Samus appears relieved but there is still plenty to worry about.
"We also need to consider the worst case scenario. Whenever I drain life energy, there's a chance that I might lose control again if I have to take too much," she warns them.
The Spartans shift uneasily. They can vividly recall what took place on the supply ship and how she almost killed the Chief.
"We need to set precautions in place, so that I don't jeopardize the mission. I recommend all of you keep an ice grenade with you at all times. I would also like to train here so you can learn my methods of attack. Do not hesitate to take me out if I become a threat,"
Everyone becomes more uncomfortable. The Chief has no desire to think of Samus as a threat but he can think of no rational argument to disagree with her. She is putting the mission ahead of her own well being and he respects her for that.
Fred speaks up.
"Samus, Cortana, what are the odds that we'll encounter Metroids on this mission?" he asks.
The AI and the bounty hunter exchange a brief glance before Samus replies.
"Unknown, but I wouldn't be surprised if we did."