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Fan Fiction

A New Year's Day by Guilty Spark

A New Year's Day, Chapter 1
Date: 8 December 2002, 9:37 am

Two years after the destruction of the first halo device...

Jacob slowly lifted his head above the snowy embankment to survey the empty field that lay before him. The smoldering hulk of a scorpion tank, the remnants of a couple of banshees turning white with past days' flurries, scraps of warthogs and ghosts strewn about, and bodies. Bodies everywhere - both human and Covenant. In the distance, rose a spine of rock that snaked back and forth across the tundra.
A sound. It seemed distant but grew near before Jacob could react. Sgt. Jeremy Hawkins watched in stunned silence as Jacob's lifeless body slid down the embankment. Keeping low, he scrambled to the body. "Jacob! Jacob!" he cried.
With some effort, he turned the body over. A small hole bore into the center of Jacob's face shield - blood beginning to seep from the hole. Tiny blobs of blue plasma lay smeared across the shield.
Hawkins cursed under his breath. He crawled back to face the remainder of his team. "That sniper is still out there. Jacob is gone." The silence was deafening. Jacob was the one thing they had going for them - their escape depended upon him. Now, Hawkins knew it was a matter of time before they joined the dead Spartan.

[February 3, 2558. 0800 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]
"Bella, any word from the fire team?"
"Nothing," replied the AI construct.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Cpt. Joe "Bull" Halsey frowned at the arc of the planet filling the bridge's view. He disliked this mission. Flying without escort and inserting an LRP (long range patrol) into hostile territory. He had no choice. USNC doled out the orders, requested he lead the operation and... well, here he was. Four days prior, there was a clash with Covenant forces on Luna II. Since then, not a word from USNC forces planet side. Halsey was sent to find out what happened. Now, he had a missing LRP on his hands. A hell of way to ring in the new year, he thought.
"Captain, it has been over twenty-four hours since the team last reported in. Should we try to make contact?" asked Bella.
"Not yet", replied Halsey. "Can't risk broadcasting our position to the Covenant. We'll just have to sit tight."
"Comm! Contact bearing 2-3-5!" barked Lt. Doug Jamison.
"What is it? What's its heading?" Halsey shot back.
"I can't get a make on it, sir, but I think it's a Covie. It's headed straight for us." The bridge's view screen magnified to reveal an approaching ship. It was small, slender and moving fast. It was definitely Covenant design.
"Bella, shields up! Go to red alert!" ordered Halsey. The room dimmed then was bathed in red light, and the emergency claxons began wailing. "Target the ship and power up the turbo lasers," he continued. "Ready strike fighters in bays one and two. Have bays three and four on standby. I want to provide the Covenant a proper welcoming committee should any more show up."
"Captain, the turbo lasers are ready and the ship is within range," reported Bella.
"Any other Covies?" asked Halsey. "None," came the reply.
The ship was within six kilometers and appeared to be on course to pass right in front of the Concordia. "On my mark, hit that ship with the port batteries," ordered Halsey.
"Aye, sir." replied Jamison.
The turbo lasers tracked the tiny ship, ready to unleash a maelstrom upon it. Then, almost as quickly as it had appeared, the ship vanished. The bridge's view was empty save for Luna II looming in the background.
"Where is that ship?"
"I don't know, sir. One minute it was there, then... gone."
"It entered slipstream?"
"Scanning. No. There is no slipstream signature present." said Bella.
"Dammit! Then where is it?!" bellowed Halsey.
"I don't know." the AI retorted.
Halsey slammed his fist down, then collected his thoughts. "A ship does not simply up and disappear. Find it. We have a team to extract planet side and I don't want some Covie scout alerting the entire quadrant to our presence."
"I'm on it. Should we make that call now?"
"Do it."
A brief pause - while Bella attempted to make contact with the LRP - gave Halsey time to consider their situation. His fingers strummed against his thigh while he sat back and stared at Luna II. If the LRP had completed its mission, then they might gain insight into new technology being employed by the Covenant. It may be the edge the USNC so desperately needed. Then again, it may be another wild goose chase. It would not be the first time that happened.
"Captain, I could not raise Hawkins' team," interrupted Bella. "But, I am picking up Jacob's signature. Should I send a dropship down to pick them up?"
"Do it. Send a longsword escort, too."
"Extraction team launching in ten minutes."
Halsey stood and began pacing the deck. He pondered. What was a single Covenant ship doing here? And, why was it willing to come within close range of my ship? Bravado? No, not their style. The Covenant move efficiently and with purpose. Decoy, Halsey thought. But, a decoy for what. "Bella, tell the extraction team to double time it."
"Done. They will be planet side in four minutes and back here in five."
Halsey silently prayed Hawkins' team would be on the returning dropship.

A New Year's Day, Chapter 2
Date: 12 December 2002, 7:10 am

[February 3, 2558. 0806 hours. Luna II. LZ X-ray (Hawkins LRP).]

Four Longswords completed a second pass over the snow-swept terrain of Luna II. "All clear, Mother Goose. I can see the fire team but no movement. Over."
"Roger that, Red Saber. Mother Goose on approach. Over."
"We'll continue our sweep until you're off the ground. Saber out."
Mother Goose, a Pelican dropship, emerged from a low cloudbank closing quickly on the landing zone. The green light inside the holding bay turned red. Sgt. Martin Riggs stood and barked orders above the engines straining to slow the dropship's descent. "When we touch down, Hicks and Simpson take point. Carter, Banks, Jones and Orlando recover the team." The door to the holding bay opened. The marines hesitated for a split second as they felt the cold slap of bright light and frozen air. "Go! Go! Go! Dust off in ninety seconds!"
Hicks and Simpson took positions near the dropship. The LZ was in a shallow depression, which gave them good cover but a poor view of their surroundings. I don't like this, thought Hicks. Both men looked skyward as the Longswords passed over continuing their patrol. At least they can see what's coming.
Sgt. Riggs and the rest of the squad ran a short distance to the fire team. The sergeant quickly surmised the scene. All dead. The bodies were arranged in a circular pattern. Riggs called out, "No time for sight-seeing. Everyone grab a body and high-tail it back to the dropship."
In a little over a minute, the bodies had been recovered and placed aboard the Pelican, except for one: Jacob. There was no sign of the Spartan.
"Sarge! Sarge!" yelled Pvt. Allison Banks. "Take a look at this." She held a small, round metallic object barely two centimeters in diameter and as thin as paper. Laser-inscribed on one side was the USNC emblem.
"That's the Spartan's homing beacon."
"Should we look for him?"
"He's not here. Get aboard."
"But, sir..."
"I said 'get aboard,' Banks."
With a quizzical look, Allison turned and boarded Mother Goose. The rest of the team was already seated and strapped in. Riggs stepped aboard and the dropship began lifting off. The door closed and the holding bay fell dark except for the red light.
"How do you know Jacob's not here, Sarge?" asked Banks.
"Because that beacon is implanted under the skin. Someone removed that beacon and there's only one reason why... they didn't want us to find him."

[February 3, 2558. 1500 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

Three figures stood staring at a massive monitor. It listed the members of the deceased fire team, it depicted a topographical map of Luna II and played video footage taken from the Longswords and the Pelican sent to recover the team.
"What happened down there, Sergeant?" asked Halsey.
"Sir, it appeared that Hawkins' team was pinned down and taken out by Covenant sniper fire." Riggs pointed to an area on the map. The area highlighted and enlarged showing a magnified view of the landing zone. He continued, "And, we know they could not pinpoint their attackers, because we recovered nearly all of the team's ammunition. My guess is the Covenant knew where to find them and were waiting."
"How many Covenant?"
"No telling, sir. There were no footprints at the LZ."
"No footprints? How do you explain Jacob's missing body?"
"They could have picked him up in a Ghost, sir."
"That still doesn't explain the bodies." Halsey faced the monitor. "Show me the video from the dropship," Immediately, the monitor flashed and began showing the Pelican's descent from the clouds to hovering over the landing zone. "Freeze. There." Halsey pointed to the bodies. "The bodies have been arranged to form the symbol commonly found on the Covenant... but, no footprints. Impossible. Bella?"
"I agree with the sergeant. It appears a Covenant strike team was responsible, or someone is trying to convince us the Covenant were responsible. But, two things trouble me. First, though the Covenant are deeply religious, they would never take the time to arrange bodies into a pattern. Second, assuming they took Jacob, they knew where to find his beacon and how to remove it without setting off its distress signal. In fact, we don't know if he's dead or alive." Bella walked towards the monitor with her arms folded across her chest, then turned to Halsey. "Whoever did this knew exactly what they were up against and they had no fear of us catching them."
"Sergeant, good job. You're dismissed."
"Aye, sir." Riggs left knowing the discussion was not over, yet.
"Bella, have you been able to uncover anything about Hawkins' mission objectives?"
"No. The classification protocols are above construct accessibility."
"Yesterday, I was wondering why would Fleet send us out this far to a rock with no apparent strategic value to conduct - of all things - a recon mission." Halsey looked out at Luna II. "Today, I am wondering what they aren't telling us. I am sure they have their reasons."
Bella firmly planted her hands on her hips."With all due respect, to hell with their reasons, Captain. You have a crew and a ship to protect. If Fleet is withholding information vital to our mission, then..."
"Then there's nothing we can do about it," finished Halsey.
Suddenly, a beep and the room's intercom came alive. "Captain, you had better come to the bridge."
"What is it, Jamison?"
"Our little ship. It's back."

A New Year's Day, Chapter 3
Date: 15 December 2002, 9:08 am

[February 3, 2558. 1530 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

"Shields up! Bring us back to full alert," Halsey said as he turned to leave the room. "Bella, I'll see you on the bridge." Halsey left the room and boarded the nearest turbolift. The doors to the lift closed and Halsey commanded,"Bridge." The turbolift accelerated up and sped Halsey towards the bridge with a soft hum.
Halsey pondered the developing situation. The Concordia - being a Halcyon-class cruiser - was obviously more than any scout ship could chew. It was one of the first USNC ships to be fitted with new weaponry compliments of stolen Covenant technology. Turbolasers. It was a derivative of plasma technology, but didn't pack the same punch. However, what the turbolasers lacked in quality they made up for in quantity. They required less energy and a smaller footprint than their plasma counterparts, meaning you could arrange more of them on your ship. A lone Covenant heavy cruiser would think twice before tangling with a ship like the Concordia. This isn't a heavy cruiser it's a scout ship, Halsey thought.
The turbolift slowed then came to a firm stop. The doors opened and Halsey stepped onto the bridge. Some crewmembers stood staring out the main view of the bridge. He looked past them and there it was, the small ship they had encountered just hours prior. As Halsey approached, the crewmembers dispersed, returning to their bridge stations. Bella materialized nearby.
"Jamison, status," ordered Halsey.
"Nothing, sir. The ship is just sitting there... doing nothing," replied the lieutenant.
What in the world does this Covenant want, thought Halsey.
"Captain, the energy levels coming from that ship are off the scale," Bella said. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Is it building to self-destruct?"
"No. It is sustained, but... it's not plasma-based..."
"Comm! Multiple contacts bearing 0-7-1," Jamison broke in.
About eight kilometers off the starboard side of the Concordia, nine Covenant warships dropped out of slipstream. A heavy cruiser, two frigates and six destroyers. Immediately the frigates moved forward to engage the Concordia.
"A Covenant welcoming committee. That's what are little friend lured us into," Halsey said under his breath shaking his head at his inability to see this coming. "Helm, evasive maneuvers. Delta Tau." The Concordia turned away from the small scout ship to face the new threat.
As the first Covenant frigate came into range, a beam of intense, white light shot past the Concordia from her aft. The beam penetrated the frigate, travelling across its fore section slicing like a knife through the gleaming hull. Small explosions erupted along the fissure being created by the beam until the frigate imploded. The resulting explosion shook the Concordia and heavily damaged the remaining frigate, setting it adrift - no propulsion, no helm control. It would eventually meet its fate on the surface of Luna II. The destroyers broke formation and, along with the heavy cruiser, moved to engage the Concordia.
"Bella, where in the hell did that come from?" shouted Halsey.
"The scout ship, I think."
"What the..."
At that moment, the scout ship moved past the Concordia positioning itself in front to engage the oncoming Covenant ships. The Covenant ships - in unison - began firing at the Concordia and the scout ship. Some of the shots found their targets. The Concordia was rocked, absorbing the hits and sustaining serious damage to her shielding. We won't last long, thought Halsey. He noticed the scout ship was gone. Destroyed.
"Fire! Concentrate on the destroyers."
The Concordia returned fire. Her turbolaser batteries burst forth raining a firestorm on the approaching destroyers. Many shots found their mark. One destroyer was severely damaged - it would be joining the doomed frigate. Two other destroyers lost weapons but still had propulsion. The remaining three destroyers pushed ahead with the cruiser not far behind. The Covenant were about to have their day with the Concordia.
"Comm! Contact bearing 3-1-6! It's the scout ship," Jamison said in disbelief.
Behind and to the port side of the destroyers, the scout ship materialized. "A cloaking device," Halsey and Bella said looking at each other.
The scout ship emitted two white beams focused on the destroyers' aft sections. Before they could react, they exploded, breaking one of the destroyers into three large chunks hurtling through space. The Concordia erupted with another volley of fire at the last charging destroyer. As the destroyer simultaneously returned fire, it exploded. The Concordia found its mark.
The destroyer found its mark, as well. The Concordia was disabled, turning slowly, but thankfully moving away from Luna II. Weapons functioned, but no propulsion! "We're a sitting duck," said Halsey. "Where is that cruiser?"
"Sir, the cruiser is retreating," replied Jamison.
"I guess we have our little 'friend' to thank," injected Bella.
"Damage report," requested Halsey.
Bella stood with eyes closed and her hand to her forehead. "Engines down. We may be able to get secondary thrusters online in an hour - no word on the primaries. Shields down to nearly three percent. Long range communications are out. Minor hull breaches on deck thirty-two. Sixteen fatalities and about twice as many injuries - some of them serious. Overall, I would say we were lucky."
Halsey faced Jamison. "Where is that scout ship?"
"About 2 kilometers off our starboard side, sir."
"Hail them."
Jamison hailed the tiny ship. Halsey turned to Bella, "What do you make of this little 'friend' of ours?"
"Beats the hell out of me."
"What kind of energy did you say?"
"I didn't. It's definitely not plasma-based. I've never seen anything like..."
"Sir, they're responding to our hail."
"On screen."
The bridge view flickered and was replaced by a holo-screen. The screen filled in with a large, dark figure. It appeared to be humanoid. It wore some sort of armor - not distinguishable on a holo-screen. Its eyes almost seemed to have a faint glow.
For a brief moment, no one said anything. Then, it spoke,"Hello, Captain Halsey. We are who you refer to as the Forerunner."

A New Year's Day, Chapter 4
Date: 18 December 2002, 6:46 am

[February 3, 2558. 1600 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

Silence fell across the bridge. Crewmembers looked up from their consoles and stared at the figure looking back at them on the holo-screen.
Halsey took a step forward. "We appreciate your assistance. But, you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name but I don't know yours."
The being replied, "Imhotep." Two figures appeared behind Imhotep. "This is Djoser and Tetiankh-Kem," as he motioned to his right then left. "We are explorers and have been examining this system for resources. I am curious. This planet is far from your more developed systems, yet your people and the Covenant have repeatedly fought to control it. Why?"
Halsey nodded. He knew when to lay out his cards and when to hold them close to his vest. He chose the later. "It's funny you should mention resources. We have found Luna II to be rich in iridium and titanium - both are valuable resources to my people. But, I imagine the Covenant like Luna II for military reasons. We know they have used the planet as a jumping point for invasions into our systems." Halsey added the last bit hoping to create the impression they knew what was going on around Luna II. He didn't like being caught with his pants down, and he felt uncomfortable with the idea the Forerunner - regardless if they were hostile or not - may have been watching since the Concordia's arrival two days ago. "Is Luna II part of your territory?" Hasley asked, turning the subject back to the Forerunner.
"We lay no claim to the planet. It lacks the resources we seek."
"What resources would that be? Perhaps we have access to them and could provide you with what you need. It's the least we could do to repay you for your assistance."
"Thank you, but it is a rare item and difficult to acquire. We could not impose such a task upon you. Your ship has suffered damage. Are you in need of assistance with the repairs?"
He is holding his cards close, too, Halsey thought. And, changing the subject. "Thank you, Imhotep. We appreciate the offer, but we have the situation under control. We should be on our way within the hour."
"Good luck then, Captain Halsey. We have urgent matters to attend to and must be on our way."
"Hold on. My people have looked forward to meeting your people. We have so many questions. When will we meet, again? How will we contact you?"
"Soon. Very soon. We will contact you."
The holo-screen faded. Seconds later, the Forerunner ship slowly turned then sped away, quickly vanishing from sight.
"Bella?" asked Halsey.
"I am reading some sort of hyperspace signature. They're gone."
"Send a sitrep (situation report) to Fleet. Secure band, high-level encryption. Have my command staff meet me in my ready room in twenty minutes."

[February 3, 2558. 1630 hours. Inside Camp Eagle, a USNC special operations marine outpost half a light year away from Luna II.]

Two men sat in a small, low-lit conference room reading a sitrep from the Concordia.
"My God, he did it. The son-of-a-gun did it," said Colonel Bryce McFarlan. "Bull Halsey drew them out. We were right. The Forerunner are on Luna II."
"Yeah, we were right. But, Hawkins' team was supposed to make the contact. Instead, they ended up KIA. Something is wrong with this. On top of that, this is not a 'contained' situation," said Colonel Hal Montgomery, a slow stream of smoke rising from his pipe.
"Don't piss on it, Hal. A Covenant strike team ambushed Hawkins' team. They got careless and paid the price. It's stated clearly in Bull Halsey's report. Besides, he runs a tight ship. He will keep this sealed until he comes hear for debriefing."
"Are you sure he won't leak?"
"Without a doubt."
"Are you going to let him in on our friend?" Montgomery motioned to a large, cylindrical container reaching from floor to ceiling in the center of the room. It contained a light blue, thick liquid. Floating inside the container was the body of a Forerunner.
"Let me think about that," replied McFarlan.

[February 3, 2558. 1700 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

Halsey paced the floor of his ready room. His command staff - Commander Saul Torres, Lt. Commander Adrian Pasdar, Lt. Commander Byron Black and Lt. Doug Jamison - was seated around a round onyx table. Bella stood nearby.
"We are going back down to Luna II to find out what is really going on. Time is of the essence. Adrian, I need a special ops unit for this one."
"We have six Spartans ready, sir", she replied.
"Good. Then, I'll begin the briefing. Two Pelicans will insert at our previous LZ. One will carry marines and the other will carry the Spartans. Our goal is to make this appear as a clean up mission. The marines will be tasked with recovering stray ordinance and equipment that appear to have value. The Spartans will be in active camou and insert during the commotion of the cleanup effort. The marines will load material on the dropship previously occupied by the Spartans, then return to the Concordia. The Spartans are going to follow the course previously taken by Hawkins' team to see what they can find. Any questions?"
"Sir, how will the Spartans maintain active camou?" asked Black.
"We will implement a new form of active camou that runs off the shielding generated by the Spartan's battle suit. It's a very low drain and should not be of concern," replied Torres. "If the Spartans go undetected, then they should have about twenty-four hours of active camou."
"This mission will last no more than eighteen hours," added Halsey.
"When will the team insert, sir?" asked Pasdar.
"Tomorrow at 0630. Adrian, a snowball like Luna II affords little cover. The Spartans are going to need to be fully prepped for that environment. Stealth is vital."
Pasdar nodded.
"That's all. Dismissed."

A New Year's Day, Chapter 5
Date: 22 December 2002, 7:16 am

[February 4, 2558. 0500 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

      Beneath the Pelican dropship Kingfisher, five Spartan soldiers were making final preparations for their upcoming mission. The floor of the landing bay was covered with weapons, ammunition and equipment. MA7A battle rifles. Medkits. M12 IE (incendiary explosive) grenades. Field rations. Off to the side, a sixth Spartan was practicing with a M33 HPR (high-output pulse rifle). Also known as a "thumper", the M33 was a heavy energy-fed, rapid-fire gun. Due to its size, it was literally worn by its user. A harness connected soldier to gun. A gyroscopic attachment allowed free movement of the rifle in most any direction. The M33 was based on the same technology as turbo laser weaponry, reduced in size to be usable by an individual soldier. The team often joked that the "thumper" handled the soldier, not the other way around.
      Lt. Commander Pasdar entered the bay, paused and watched the soldiers. Jester. Napalm. Diamondback. Swede. Windows. And, Priest. Where did they come up with those names? Bravado or just unorthodox? she thought. No matter, they're special ops. A different breed, even by Spartan standards. They think different. Act different. And, they get the job done. I wouldn't trade them for anything.
      Pasdar approached the soldiers. "Good morning. Everyone rested? I hope so; you have a busy day ahead. Priest, did everyone get a chance to view the holo-records of yesterday's events?"
      "Yes, sir. We're ready," replied the team leader.
      "Let me reiterate to everyone - this mission is recon only. Run silent and avoid contact. Only fire if you're in immediate danger. Our objective is to find out what's going on down there, not to start a ruckus. Your pickup will be at 0030, tomorrow, at the insertion LZ. Any questions?"
      "Why the make believe clean up party during insertion?" asked Diamondback as she finished getting into her battle suit.
      "In case of prying eyes. Whether they be Covenant or otherwise. They will see a small group of salvage marines. Not a group of Spartans infiltrating Luna II."
      "Then, why are we extracting from the insertion LZ? Won't 'prying eyes' be aware that we landed there earlier? Someone will surely see our pickup. I don't like it," growled Napalm.
      "Stow it, Napalm," said Priest glaring at the other Spartan.
      "If I could guarantee safe passage and a sweet-smelling mission, then I wouldn't be talking to the six of you. Would I?" countered Pasdar.
      Napalm grunted, looked down and resumed locking grenades to his utility belt.
      "That is why it's important you maintain stealth. If your cover is blown, then any Covies that are present will certainly take their shots at you." Pasdar continued, "Just in case, we will have Longswords flying patrol to deal with that situation. If compromised, your E & E (escape and evasion) is one click southwest of the insertion LZ. Good luck. See you back here in eighteen-and-a-half."
      Pasdar turned and began walking out of the bay, then stopped. She turned back to the Spartans, "By the way, Windows, I want a rematch at chess at 1200 tomorrow."
      "You got it, Lou," he replied. "Lou" was short for lieutenant commander, an affectionate nickname the Spartans called Pasdar when no one else was around.
      Pasdar gave a nodding smile and exited from the bay.

[February 4, 2558. 0630 hours. Luna II. LZ X-ray.]

      The Kingfisher and Mother Goose settled to the ground, snow billowing around the engine arrays from both dropships. Ten marines hit the ground running and immediately began collecting weapons and equipment that lay scattered about.
      With active camou engaged, the Spartans left the confines of their dropship. A linked tracking system enabled them to see each other. They made their way to where the marines were working, being sure to make as few tracks as possible.
      The marines worked at a furious pace and in just over ten minutes had the Kingfisher fully loaded with materiel. During the commotion, the Spartans stood silent and surveyed the area for movement. The marines boarded Mother Goose and her engines revved up. Both dropships lifted off and within seconds had disappeared in the low clouds above. Unseen, but heard, was the hum of Longswords as they flew through the clouds to join the dropships for the return trip to the Concordia.
      The Spartans were alone.
      "No snowfall. Good. What's the word, Windows?" asked Priest.
      "We've got good commo with the Concordia," replied Windows.
      "Diamondback, where to?"
      "I see three faint trails leading away. Two appear to be Covie. One is definitely marine, heading west towards that rock," she said. The team looked to the west. A large, sheer wall of rock rose about two clicks away.
      "West it is. Let's go. Single file. Seek clear patches and avoid powder," Priest ordered.
      The Spartans headed out, each soldier about five meters apart. Swede, brandishing the M33, took point. Priest, Napalm, Diamondback, and Windows followed. Jester brought up the rear. It'll take an hour to get to the rock, provided we don't run into anyone, thought Priest.
      "Who in the hell would want this chunk of ice?" asked Napalm.
      "The USNC bikini ski team," quipped Jester.
      The group broke into hushed laughter.
      "Swede, you were on that team, weren't you?" continued Jester.
      Swede returned a string of obscenities at Jester. And again, laughter coursed through the group, a little louder this time.
      "Can it," said Priest. "Stay alert."

      An hour had nearly passed and the wall of rock loomed just ahead. "Must be three or four kilometers high," said Windows. "Odd place to put a mountain."
      Swede motioned for the team to freeze. Priest slowly stepped up behind him. "What have you got?"
      "Two figures. Off to the right about a hundred meters. Heading away from us," replied Swede.
      Priest spotted the figures walking slowly towards an outcropping from the rock wall. Elites? he thought.
      Swede gestured to the ground just ahead. The trailing turned in the direction of the outcropping and the figures. "Follow it?" he asked.
      Priest scanned their surroundings. Flat terrain to the south and east. The rock wall directly ahead trailing off to the north. "No cover out here. We don't have much of a choice. Follow it," replied Priest.
      Swede motioned forward and the Spartans resumed their walk, keeping an eye on the two newcomers. A few minutes later the two figures reached the rocky outcropping and vanished behind it. Swede looked back at Priest, who nodded to keep moving.
      The team reached the outcropping and stopped. "Napalm. Diamondback. Get on top of that ridge. Lets take a peek at what our friends are doing."
      Napalm and Diamondback quickly, but carefully climbed the outcropping. They reached the top and peered over the side. Napalm looked back at the other Spartans and made several hand signals.
      "No one there," said Priest reading the hand signals. "Entrance in wall. Thirty-five meters ahead." Priest signaled back to Napalm and Diamondback to hold their position until the rest of the team could set up near the entrance.
      Swede, Priest, Windows and Jester made their way around the ridge, and then they saw it. The entrance. It was nothing more than a thin crevasse in the wall. Large enough for three or four to walk abreast, but easily missed due to the nearby ridge. Priest signaled and Napalm and Diamondback rejoined the group.
      "Swede, you stay at point. We're maintaining single file order. Stick to the side." In case of trouble, Priest knew they would need all the space they could get.
      The Spartans entered the crevasse and stopped. The snowy floor quickly gave way to smooth dry rock. The ceiling grew narrow the higher it went, thus dimming available light - and their ability to see.
      "Give me the word, Windows," said Priest, looking at the ceiling.
      "Commo is faint already. The rock is acting like a barrier. We'll lose it within minutes," he replied.
      Priest motioned the team forward. Slowly, they moved along the crevasse going deeper into the mountain, and further from help.

A New Year's Day, Chapter 6
Date: 28 December 2002,5:43 am

The Spartans followed the crevasse for about forty meters, rounded a short turn and stopped. It was as if they had passed through an entrance. The crevasse had become a tunnel, widening by about twenty meters with the ceiling vanishing into darkness. But, not a natural tunnel formed by rock. The walls and floor were smooth and slightly rounded where the two surfaces met. To the left and right about waist high in the wall, was some sort of tube-like light source. The lights occurred about every ten meters and cast a dim, blue light. Then, just ahead something caught their eye. A band of hieroglyphics, nearly five meters wide, ran across the floor. The symbols continued up both walls until they disappeared into blackness.
"Covenant writing," whispered Diamondback. "But, I've never seen anything like this. Usually, you find just a few symbols here and there."
"What do you make of it?" asked Priest.
"Don't know. Not my preferred reading."
The two Spartans briefly shot grins at one another. Priest motioned and the team gathered together. "What's our time?"
"1115. We've been at it for nearly five hours," replied Jester.
"We're breaking into two teams. Swede, Windows and myself will continue down this side of the tunnel. Napalm, Diamond and Jester, I want you on the opposite side." Priest continued, "Follow us but stay back about ten meters. I want total silence. If anyone hears or sees anything, signal the rest of the team by breaking intercom squelch."
The team nodded and moved into position. Priest motioned and they continued down the tunnel.

[February 4, 2558. 1100 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

"I don't believe this. Fleet is recalling me to Camp Eagle?!" exclaimed Halsey.
"Yes, sir. Admiral Stanrich's orders. You are to report to Colonel Bryce McFarlan for immediate debriefing," replied Lt. Jamison.
"Debriefing... Good grief, Fleet has their timing, but this beats all."
"Sir, what should I tell them?"
Halsey stood silent, rubbing the back of his neck. Can't mention the special ops team, he thought. "Tell them we are still experiencing engine trouble from our little run in with the Covenant. And, our ETA for departure is at least thirteen hours away. We'll get there as soon as we can."
"Acknowledged, sir." A brief pause and Jamison continued, "Colonel McFarlan says to stay put. He's coming to us and will be here within six hours."
"Hold on..."
"Sorry, sir. Colonel McFarlan closed the comm link. No one's there."
"Damn!" Halsey cursed under his breath. "Any luck reaching the Spartans?"
"No, sir. We lost contact with them when they entered the mountain."
"Yes?" she replied materializing near the bridge's main console.
"If we don't hear from the Spartans within three hours, then I want a second team down there looking for them. Tell Adrian to make the necessary preparations. I want those Spartans back here before McFarlan arrives."
"Right away," replied Bella as she vanished.
Halsey sat back and wondered what was so important that Fleet was coming to him.

[February 4, 2558. 1130 hours. Luna II. Unknown location.]

The Spartans noticed a faint sound. It grew louder as they continued their creep down the tunnel. The sound seemed to pulse in a low rhythmic hum. Rounding another turn, Swede halted. He broke squelch twice and the team immediately stopped.
"Up ahead... eighty meters. It looks like an entrance to a room. Lots of light," whispered Swede. He paused, "Wait. There are two figures standing just this side of the entrance. It may be the two from earlier. I can't tell - the light is silhouetting them."
"Heads up, everyone, and stay frosty. Lets go," returned Priest quietly.
The team carefully advanced towards the entrance and the figures. When they were about twenty meters away, they caught a clear glimpse of the figures. Swede, Priest and Windows froze. Napalm, Diamondback and Jester halted, still not quite able to make out the figures.
The two figures stood with their backs to the Spartans. They were definitely humanoid, but shorter than an Elite. They wore what appeared to be USNC MJOLNIR battle suits! The suits were covered in hieroglyphics similar to those the team had seen earlier. Both figures held some sort of short, metallic rod.
Priest made several hand motions. Diamondback removed a small rock she had collected when entering the mountain. She threw the rock back towards the last bend in the tunnel.
Reacting to the sound of the rock bouncing off a wall, the two figures immediately spun around. They saw nothing.
Windows nearly gasped. Their faces! They almost appeared to be human. Mouth. Nose. Eyes... those eyes. They seemed to have a faint glow...
With a quick flick of their heads, both aliens dropped a visor down concealing their face. Both reacted to the presence of the Spartans.
"They can see us!" yelled Windows.
Napalm, Diamondback and Jester began charging forward to come to the aid of the rest of the team. Jester made it two steps before he was struck down from behind. Napalm and Diamondback turned to see four more aliens standing behind them. One of them was holding some sort of pole-like weapon. Jester lay on the ground motionless.
The two aliens in front of Swede brought their rods to the ready. The rods, which were no more than a third of a meter in length, instantly extended to two meters. The end pointing toward them spit electricity. The other end cast a bright blue light - in what appeared to be the shape of a sword. Before the Spartans could react, one of the aliens charged forward striking Windows in the chest. The electrical charge sent him hurtling back into the wall. Windows was out.
"We're surrounded!" yelled Napalm.
Bringing the M33 to bear on the nearest aliens, Swede screamed, "Lets rock!" He squeezed the trigger and strafed from right to left, unleashing a continuous volley of fire. Caught off guard, the two aliens were struck multiple times across the head, torso and arms. Each time they were struck, a faint glow refracted from their armor. However, the rapid fire of the thumper was too much and both were knocked backwards off their feet. Bloodied, they lay lifeless. Swede continued his strafe. Napalm and Diamondback knew what was coming and had already hit the ground. However, the aliens had time to react, too. They jumped or dove out of Swede's line of fire, except one. The alien that had taken Jester now lay dead against the wall. Two aliens landed near Swede and Priest; the last rolled to its feet near Napalm and Diamondback. A cry of agony. Priest turned to see a blue light sword slice through the M33 and Swede. Swede's torso fell to the left; his legs to the right. Priest aimed his battle rifle, squeezed the trigger and felt the electric shock coming from the rod of the other alien. Priest fell unconscious to the ground. Napalm and Diamondback reached their feet just as the alien did. The alien raised and turned its weapon so the sword was pointing forward. Diamondback threw a spinning kick landing behind the light blue blade, knocking the weapon into the air. Napalm opened fire on the alien. It took several hits before falling to its back. Diamondback was on top of the alien before it could regain its feet. She leapt and came down on the alien driving the heel of her boot into its visor - shattering it. Diamondback hesitated. She was staring down at a human face. A sound brought her back. She turned to see Napalm collapsing to the ground. Suddenly, she felt the sting of electricity course through her brain and body and all went black.

A New Year's Day, Chapter 7
Date: 7 January 2003, 5:43 am

[February 4, 2558. 1415 hours. Luna II. LZ Sierra.]

      Lt. Commander Pasdar and a lone Spartan stood in the open belly of Mother Goose, hovering in a small clearing between two rocky crags.
      "Master Chief, this is it," shouted Pasdar above the whine of the dropship's engines. She pointed towards a crevasse in the wall of rock looming before them and continued, "Priest's team tracked a couple of aliens - probably Covenant elites - into that cave. We lost contact after they went inside. Commo. Homing beacons. Everything. It's probably the rock acting as a buffer. You'll be on your own."
      "I'm used to working alone."
      "I know you are, but no heroics. We're not interested in losing another soldier. Locate Priest's team and report back here by 1545 hours."
      "You're not giving me much time to enjoy the scenery."
      Pasdar smiled. "How does the battle suit feel?"
      "Lighter than what I'm used to."
      "Well, it offers at least twice the protection of the current suits. The lighter weight should improve your mobility. The shielding is slightly improved. And, the active camou is superior. It continuously re-modulates to prevent detection, but it draws power from your shielding."
      "How long does it last?"
      "About three hours... give or take a few minutes."
      "After that, I'm visible with no shielding."
      "That's right. You're visible with no shielding."
      The Master Chief nodded. He shook hands with Pasdar, then activated his camou. She watched as the Spartan quickly vanished, blending in perfectly with his surroundings. Pasdar heard a faint clang and knew the Spartan was gone.

      After a few minutes of walking, the Master Chief rounded a turn and stopped. The crevasse had become a cave. He noted what appeared to be a band of Covenant hieroglyphics embedded in the stone, running wall to wall. He checked his motion tracker. Nothing. The Spartan continued on until he rounded another bend. Up ahead - nearly a hundred meters away - was a doorway leading into a room. Slowly the Master Chief crept forward, hugging the wall and sticking to shadows. He paused every ten meters to watch and listen. When he neared the doorway, he a fire fight had taken place there earlier. His eyes traced the carbon scoring from wall to wall. An M33, he thought. Priest's team. They laid down a continuous arc of fire. Must have been surrounded. The Spartans eyes settled on the blood-stained floor. The blood had dried dark brown, nearly matching a natural stone color. Priest's team is minus one. He noted two more stains nearby. Maybe three.
      The Master Chief reached the doorway and peered into the room. It was a large hangar with no visible opening. Several small ships were parked. The Spartan noted the resemblance to the ship the Concordia had encountered the day before. He froze against the wall. From behind, two figures approached. The Master Chief slowly drew his pistol. His eyes cut to the side to watch the oncoming threat. They were within twenty meters. The Spartan silently released the safety on the pistol. A bullet was already loaded in the chamber. Fifteen meters away. He could clearly see them now. Humanoid, not Covenant. Spartans? Part of Priest's team? The Master Chief almost called to them, then the hieroglyphics on their battle suits caught his attention. What the hell is going on here, he asked himself. Ten meters away. He drew his pistol up to release his first shots just below the visor at the humanoids' throats. He glanced left and right - no one else was around. Five meters. The humanoids appeared to be unarmed other than some sort of short metal rod each of them carried. They passed by him without notice and entered the hangar. The damn camou actually works, he thought. Buy the techs a round when you get back. Hell, buy them two rounds.
      The humanoids worked their way across the hangar, disappearing through a doorway on the far side. The Master Chief noticed another doorway nearby to his right, to his left was some sort of lift. He took the nearby doorway.

[February 4, 2558. 1445 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

      "Damn! He's early," muttered Halsey.
      Through a nearby airlock, emerged Colonel McFarlan. "Joe, good to see you."
      Halsey saluted.
      "Oh, cut the formalities. We've known each other too long."
      Halsey relaxed. "Hello, Bryce. It's been awhile. What brings you to the Concordia?"
      McFarlan smiled and shook his head. "Straight to business, huh?"
      "Yes, sir."
      "Where can we talk in private?"
      "Come with me."

      Halsey and McFarlan entered a large, dark conference room.
      "Lights," Halsey ordered. The conference room came to life. Lights flickered on and a bank of monitors sprung to life. Data flowed across the screens providing various bits of real-time information about the Concordia, her systems and her crew.
      "Joe, I know it's unusual for me to..."
      "Sir, please get to the point of why you're here."
      "Calm down, Joe. Calm..."
      "It's a little hard to calm down. In the last forty-eight hours, we lost Hawkins' team, we faced a Covenant battle group and encountered a new alien species claiming to be the Forerunners. And, I have a feeling Fleet knows what's going on, but is refusing to let me in on it." Sweat began forming on Halsey's forehead.
      "You know as well as I that sometimes we have to operate in the dark. We can only focus on the goals set before us. Joe, you know..."
      "Bullshit, Bryce! Why send the Concordia out here to watch a piece of ice that has no apparent strategic value? If Luna II is nothing more than a listening post, then why send down a recon team? Why not just use stat probes? Why are the Covenant so damn interested in Luna II?" Halsey paused, unclinched his teeth, then continued, "Bryce, if you know something..."
      "Is that an order from captain to colonel?"
      "Take it ever how you wish. How about we call Admiral Stanrich? I'm sure he would take interest in this."
      "Who do you think sent me here?"
      Halsey's eyes widened.
      "Okay, Joe. Around nine months ago, we received intelligence that the Covenant were heavily bombarding Luna II. No one knew why. USNC had no forces on Luna II. They seemed ready to glass the planet. It never got that far. Something stopped them cold. We weren't sure what was going on, so we put our piece into play. USNC began sending in expeditionary forces to investigate Luna II and harass the Covenant. It wasn't long before a team witnessed the Covenant getting their asses handed to them by another alien species." McFarlan broke into a broad smile. "Joe, we think this species is indeed the Forerunners."
      "How can you be so sure?"
      McFarlan paused. "Lieutenant Wallace?"
      A voice came back across the intercom, "Yes, sir?"
      "Please bring in the casket."
      The doors to the conference opened. Four men wheeled in a large cylindrical container. They rested the container nearby then left the room.
      McFarlan walked over to the cylinder. "If I open this, then you will be one of few who have witnessed its contents. You will be sworn to complete secrecy. Are you in?"
      "Of course," replied Halsey eager to see the contents but having a sense that he knew what lay inside.
      McFarlan tapped a keypad on the base of the container. The doors of the container slid open. A light emanated from within the tube revealing a humanoid figure floating in a suspension fluid.
      "What the hell..."
      "A Forerunner, Joe."
      "It looks like..."
      "A man. We noticed. There are a few minor differences in its physiology compared to humans. Most notably in the brain. Differences we would consider evolutionary."
      Halsey moved closer to the container peering intently at the figure within.
      "A recon team discovered his body." McFarlan continued, "We have been studying him for over five months."
      "Like I said, they share much the same physiology with mankind. Look at this." McFarlan held up part of a battle suit.
      "The breast plate to a Mark V. So what?"
      "Look closer."
      Halsey saw it. Hieroglyphics. "Covenant writing?"
      "Looks like it, doesn't it. It's Forerunner writing. We have deciphered little of it, but we are pretty sure the Covenant are emulating their writing. Why? We don't know. Could be part of their worship of the Forerunner."
      "Worship? You said the Covenant were fighting with the Forerunners."
      "Indeed. The deciphered writing leads us to believe the Covenant have an odd belief system. They worship those more powerful than themselves, such as the Forerunners. They aspire to be like the Forerunners."
      "What happens if they succeed?"
      "Then, the Covenant will probably treat them the same way they treat us. If it gets to that point, then... lets just hope it doesn't get there."
      "Okay, what happened to him? How did you get your hands on this body?"
      "I knew you would ask."

A New Year's Day, Chapter 8
Date: 11 January 2003, 3:58 pm

[February 4, 2558. 1500 hours. Luna II. Unknown location.]

      One at a time, Priest's eyes fluttered open. The soft murmur of distant voices. A gnawing pain coursed through his body and mind. He was lying on his back, staring forward in a large, opaque room. He was no longer wearing his helmet. Priest could not tell where ceiling met wall. Where am I? The voices grew louder. Subduing the aching in his neck, he turned his head to the right. Jester. Priest could see his team member lying nearby, motionless. Diamondback and Napalm lay beyond. All motionless. Where's Windows? Swede? Priest lifted his head upward. A hiss. A wet mist began filtering down from above. Almost instantly it formed into a film covering the Spartan from head to toe, adhering him to the table. It clung to him. He could not move, could not breath. Priest began to panic. Seconds became an eternity. He screamed. Suddenly, the film separated over his head. Air. Priest thought he heard his scream vibrate through the room. Echo? Again, he looked to the others. Alive! Jester, Diamondback and Napalm were awake, a flesh-like film covering their bodies except for their faces.
      "Jester," called Priest.
      "Etau luk t'frau," replied a voice to Priest's left.
      Priest turned to look. Windows lay to his left. Three figures stood near Window's feet. Their gaze traveled from Windows to Priest to the other Spartans. They looked human... like the figures they encountered in the tunnel... no armor... robes...
      "Dunau ip peshk," called one of the humanoids.
      One of the humanoids produced a container. Using some sort of forceps, it reached into the container and extracted what appeared to be some sort of organism. It was about the size of a fist, beige-green in color. Short tentacles protruded from one end. The organism made a faint, repetitious grinding noise.
      The humanoids circled Jester, peering over him with the organism still in hand. Jester's eyes were wild with fear. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
      "T'frau ip tuuk. Tuuk," said one of the humanoids.
      The humanoid holding the organism stooped over Jester. It lowered the creature over Jester's face. Jester grimaced. Screamed. Then, clinched his teeth shut when they attempted to place the organism in his mouth. Using one of its tentacles, the organism secreted fluid on Jester's lips. Instantly, the Spartan screamed in agony. Mouth agape, the organism was plunged into his mouth and released. Jester writhed violently, but the film held him down. He tried to scream, but only a suffocating gurgle erupted. In seconds, Jester lay motionless.
      "What the hell? You son-of-a-bitch!" yelled Napalm.
      "T'frau ip etau," said one of the humanoids, ignoring Napalm.
      The humanoids encircled Priest, ready to repeat the act. An organism was produced. It squirmed in the forceps. Priest squinted his eyes, gritting his teeth. No way, he thought. No way that thing is getting in my mouth. I'm not going down like that. The organism was lowered close to Priest's face. It extended a tentacle to his lips.
      A muffled crack. The organism exploded. Fluid and matter splattered across Priest's face. Another crack, followed by two more. Dull thuds sounded around Priest. He looked. Nothing. A voice. "All of you... stay still. Be quiet."
      "My God. Master Chief. Is that you?!" cried Windows.
      "Shh!" hissed the voice.
      Several seconds passed. No movement. No sound. Suddenly, Priest felt the film cut away from his body. Windows, Diamondback and Napalm followed. The Spartans got to their feet. The humanoids lay on the floor, each with a bullet wound to the head. The Master Chief materialized before them. Priest stared in disbelief.
      "We're glad to see you," whispered Diamondback.
      "I'll second that," affirmed Windows.
      Priest turned to Jester. The Spartan lay still. He noticed the tentacles of the organism emerging from Jester's mouth. Priest rushed over, grabbing the organism. It screeched. Priest crushed it in his hand, silencing it forever. Jester remained still.
      "We've got to get him back to the Concordia," said Priest.
      "Not a chance. He's infected," replied the Master Chief.
      "He's one of us."
      "Not any longer."
      "We're not leaving without him."
      "In a few seconds, you'll change your mind."
      Jester burst to life. "M'lok! M'lok! Etau meelo dunau!" The film covering Jester's body began to rip against his thrashing.
      Moving quickly, the Master Chief stepped over and planted the muzzle of his pistol on Jester's forehand. "Rest in peace, soldier." The pistol fired. Jester slumped back to the table. Blood flowed from beneath his head, covering the once white table.
      "Murderer!" shouted Diamondback.
      "Savior," replied the Master Chief. "Don't make another sound."
      "Who the hell...," began Napalm.
      The Master Chief spun and met Napalm face to face. "Not a sound."
      "Chief. What's going on?" whispered Priest.
      "I'm not sure."
      "What are they doing? I mean, what were they doing to us?"
      "Not sure about that either. It looked like they were turning you into something. Maybe one of them."
      "Who's 'them?'"
      "The Forerunner. Lets go."
      The Master Chief moved towards a doorway, pointing to his left. The Spartans saw their weapons and equipment, stacked nearby. They put on their helmets and grabbed their gear. Checking their equipment, they moved to the doorway.
      "Do you have active camou?" asked the Master Chief.
      "Yes, but it's ineffective. They can see us."
      The Master Chief nodded. "We'll have to run silent. You won't be able to see me. Follow me using your motion trackers. Our exit is not far away. A dropship will be waiting to pick us up in twenty minutes. Lets move."
      The Spartans activated their camou and left the room. After creeping down several corridors, they broke into an enormous room. They were on a catwalk high above the ground. The ceiling was natural cavern. Space ships sat parked below. Voices. The Spartans halted. Hundreds of humanoids stood below, in formation. Troops. A commander walked about calling out orders. The troops went through various drills. They melee with one another. Some used a shock stick in mock combat. Priest, Windows, Diamondback and Napalm nodded in recognition.
      They reached the end of the catwalk. It entered a doorway in the rock wall.
      "Go through the doorway and follow the passage to your right. It will bring you out to a familiar tunnel," said the Master Chief. "I'll bring up the rear."
      The Spartans followed the passage into the tunnel where they had encountered the Forerunner soldiers before. Diamondback hesitated. A Forerunner stood to their right - only meters away - its back turned to them. Priest motioned her to keep moving. The Master Chief stopped, then crept in close to the Forerunner. He slowly unsheathed his battle knife. It was a slightly curved twelve-inch blade; razor sharp on one side, serrated on the other. The cold steel cast a faint glimmer. The Spartan grabbed the Forerunner from behind. In a split second, the Master Chief locked his left arm around the chin of his victim. Pulled upward and sliced into the Forerunner's neck with the blade. An abrupt gag. Blood poured from the wound. The Forerunner slumped to the ground. The Master Chief materialized.
      "Jacob!" cried Diamondback.
      The Master Chief grabbed the Forerunner by the hair and tilted its head back. The face shield was up. It was Jacob. The Master Chief released the body and it slumped to the ground. A small metal rod clinked on the rock floor. Jacob's armor was adorned with the same hieroglyphics as the other Forerunners.
      "He was no longer one of us," said the Master Chief. "Sleep, Jacob. Sleep."
      Shouts from the hangar.
      "Go! They heard us."
      The Spartans broke into full gallop. They reached the end of the tunnel and rounded the first bend. Windows swore he could hear the faint sound of engines up ahead. A few more meters and they passed the second bend. Light ahead!
      They emerged from the rock crevasse, nearly blinded by the light and snowy landscape. Mother Goose hovered about twenty meters away. Several marines beckoning to them from the holding bay.
      "Go! Go! Go!" shouted the Master Chief.
      The Spartans sprinted and boarded the dropship. Seconds later, they were passing through the gray clouds of Luna II on their way back to the Concordia.

A New Year's Day, Chapter 9
Date: 17 January 2003, 6:16 am

[February 4, 2558. 1600 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

Halsey, McFarlan, Pasdar and the Master Chief stood in a conference room. A monitor finished displaying video footage of the underground Forerunner facility.
"Good work, Master Chief," said Halsey.
"Good?! I'd say he did a helluva job," added McFarlan.
The Spartan nodded a thank you.
"What happened to Swede?" asked Pasdar.
"He died in a fire fight prior to the capture of Priest's team, but managed to take out two of the Forerunners before he fell," replied the Master Chief.
There was a brief moment of silence, tension in the air.
"Master Chief, why did you kill Jester and Jacob?" asked Pasdar.
"They had been turned."
"Transformed. As the video showed, the Forerunner were using a new variety of Flood spore to infect others... to change them into something else."
"Change them into what? Both Jester and Jacob appeared to be normal."
"I'll answer that, Master Chief," broke in McFarlan. Two monitors began looping video footage. One monitor showed Jester being infected, the other monitor showed the death of Jacob in the tunnel. "You're right, Adrian. They do appear to be normal. But, listen to Jester. What language is he speaking prior to his death? It's certainly not a dialect familiar to mankind. And, look at Jacob's battle suit. It has been altered. The breastplate is inscribed with hieroglyphics - definitely not standard USNC issue. Furthermore, Priest's team recalled the Forerunners wearing battle suits similar to their own, and the Forerunner's faces were undeniably human."
"I'm not sure I follow you," said Halsey.
"The Forerunners are transposing themselves onto hosts, and they are using the Flood to do it." Another moment of deafening silence as everyone in the room tried to grasp what they had just heard. McFarlan continued, "For reasons unknown to us, the Forerunners have taken a special liking to our Spartans. My guess is they consider Spartans durable hosts. But, we are not sure why the Forerunners would want to transpose themselves in the first place."
"How do you know this?" asked Halsey, obviously irritated.
"Joe, I already told you we have been studying the Forerunners since the destruction of the halo device two years ago. Cortana brought back valuable information from the halo's archives. Information that we could not decipher, until recently."
"You mean the Forerunner corpse."
McFarlan flashed a glare at Halsey, then cut his eyes around the room. "Yes," he said reluctantly. "The corpse carried data that acted as a primer for the information provided by Cortana. We learned more about the Forerunners in one month than we had in the previous year."
"How did you get the corpse?" asked Pasdar.
McFarlan looked around the room. The faces staring back at him told him all he needed to know. Contempt. "We recovered it on Luna II about six months ago. He was already dead."
"How did he die?"
"A virus. What we would consider the common cold."

A wet sauna. The air, heavy and warm - vapor forming a protective blanket. Priest and his team sat in relaxation, trying to recover from their ordeal on Luna II.
"I don't trust him," said Diamondback, seething. "How could he kill Jester and Jacob? He didn't even give them a chance."
"Jester and Jacob were gone before he killed them," replied Priest.
"Gone? Who says?"
"You heard Jester. He looked like he was ready to rip our heads off. It wasn't Jester. It was someone else."
"And Jacob?"
"We've gone through this already. They were no longer Spartans, no longer human. Drop it."
"Still, I don't trust him. He's no John 117."
"Well, you better. He's our leader, and he got us off that God-forsaken ice ball. I'll follow the Master Chief into the bowels of Hell."
Napalm and Diamondback looked on, only Windows nodded in approval.

[February 4, 2558. 2200 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

McFarlan sat alone in his quarters, seated at a small desk. A short, narrow lamp gave off a soft cool glow, not enough to cut through the shadows that hung about the room. A near-empty glass of cognac sat beneath the lamp. He was reviewing data on thin monitor built into the desk. It read:

> 02.05.2558:0700 Camp Eagle
> Montgomery, Hal J.; Colonel; Monte's Brigade
> Status: Ogdoad confirmed, Khnum unknown
> Brief: Forerunner using Flood for transport to new host confirmed;
> location of lost Spartans confirmed - minimum 100 head count;
> amassing substantial force confirmed; Forerunner are ready to move
>Order: begin Outbreak

McFarlan reached for the glass of cognac and sat back in his chair. Through a large window, he gazed out at Luna II. He looked down at his glass and finished the cognac, letting it slowly burn its way down his throat. McFarlan set the glass down, closed the monitor to the desktop and stood. He started back out at Luna II. Soon, it will be over, my son, he thought.

A New Year's Day, Chapter 10
Date: 20 January 2003, 5:56 am

[February 5, 2558. 0915 hours. Aboard the USNC Concordia orbiting Luna II.]

      Halsey looked out the window of his shuttlecraft at the battleship growing ever closer. She was over twice the length of the Concordia, and bristled with enough weaponry to give a Covenant cruiser second thoughts. A steady stream of Longsword bombers, Trident fighters and dropships poured from bays throughout the battleship - all descending on Luna II. As the shuttlecraft passed down the port side of the behemoth, Halsey read her name: Cerberus.
      "We're on final approach, sir," announced the pilot over the intercom, as the shuttlecraft banked smoothly.
      Halsey did not reply. He was deep in thought, wondering why the Cerberus and its task force- which had arrived over three hours ago - were here at Luna II. He wondered why the massive deployment to the planet. He wanted to know who called them and what exactly was going on. All Halsey knew was Admiral George Stanrich was onboard the Cerberus, and that's where he would get his answers.
      The shuttlecraft glided into a yawning hangar, the pilot guiding the small ship to a designated landing area. Within seconds, the shuttlecraft touched down, its landing struts making a thud on the floor of the landing bay. The engines wound down and Halsey and the pilot disembarked. Almost immediately, they were met by a couple of young officers. Both saluted and Halsey returned the gesture.
      "Captain Halsey. Welcome aboard. I'm Lieutenant Myers and this is Lieutenant Paciella," said one of the men.
      "Thank you," replied Halsey.
      "I will take you to Admiral Stanrich. Lieutenant Paciella will escort your pilot to the lounge. Please, come this way."
      Halsey nodded and followed the lieutenant out of the landing bay and into a turbolift. The doors to the lift closed and Myers ordered,"Conference F." The turbolift accelerated, speeding them to their destination. Halsey and Myers spoke little to each other. It was not for lack of trying on the lieutenant's part, Halsey was not interested in small talk. His mind was preoccupied with current events and those still to come. The silence made the ride seem to take longer than it should. At last, the turbolift slowed and the doors opened into a dimly lit conference room. Myers motioned forward and Halsey stepped out. The turbolift doors closed, leaving Halsey standing alone. He stepped over to a massive window peering out into space. No planet. No ships flying about. Just thousands of stars peeking through the inky blackness. It seemed so calm.
      The main doors to the conference room opened and in stepped Admiral Jack Stanrich with Colonel McFarlan in tow. Halsey turned to face them and saluted. He stared briefly at McFarlan, who returned his gaze. What the hell is he doing here already, Halsey thought.
      "Welcome aboard, Joe. Good to see you," said Stanrich, returning the salute.
      "Thank you, sir. It's been awhile," replied Halsey.
      "Yes it has. Lets get down to business." All three men took seats around a large, rectangular maple table in the center of the room. Stanrich continued, "Joe, I know you must have a hundred questions. However, it was necessary until Colonel McFarlan could complete his task."
      "His task, sir?"
      "As you already know, we believe the Forerunners inhabit Luna II. I ordered Colonel McFarlan to confirm our suspicions... and we were right, thanks in part to you."
      "You drew the Forerunners out of hiding."
      "I had little to do with exposing the Forerunners, sir. And, with all due respect, I've been kept in the dark from the start on this mission, so I don't really what the hell is going on." Halsey felt the frustration and anger of the past days' events beginning to surface, and fought to maintain a cool composure.
      "Joe, calm down. I understand your frustration. Running blind is no fun, but we've all had to do it at one time or another. It was critical for this mission."
      "What did I have to do with exposing the Forerunners?"
      "Your insistence on sending a Spartan with Hawkins' recon team. We thought it was a bad idea, but relented. The outcome was more than we could hope for."
      "Sir, I sent Jacob as added insurance to help bring that recon team back alive. At that time, I thought our intel on Luna II was poor, but it seems that I was mistaken. Please get to the point. What was Hawkins' mission and what outcome are you so pleased with?"
      McFarlan broke in, "Hawkins' mission proved the existence of the Forerunners and where our missing Spartans have been going to over the past year-and-a-half. We thought all of them had been lost in battle, and we chalked the losses up to the sometimes poor quality of the USNC's accelerated Spartan program. However, we noticed the bodies of many of the fallen Spartans were often not recovered. No trace..."
      "Could be found because their homing beacons had been removed," finished Halsey, shaking his head. He stood, leaning over the table with his hands planted firmly on its smooth surface. "It's beginning to make sense now. Jacob was bait; that's why you agreed to let him go along. What better way to draw out the Forerunners: send in a Spartan to sniff around their doorstep. How could they resist?"
      "Now wait a minute, Joe. We didn't expect to lose Jacob..."
      "Nor did you expect me to send in a Spartan special ops team to investigate - losing two of them in the process. Damn! How could I have been so blind? Wait a minute... the Master Chief's rescue of the Spartans is your 'happy outcome.' It provided you with the intel Hawkins' team failed to produce."
      "Yes," said Stanrich. "The Master Chief's successful infiltration of that base has provided us with the knowledge we need to stop the Forerunners."
      "Stop them?! How in the hell do you plan to stop them?" Halsey shot back.
      "They have only a small ground force on Luna II. Approximately five hundred soldiers, and about a fifth of that force is made up of our missing Spartans. As you may have already noticed, we are actively deploying our forces to Luna II. Eighteen hundred soldiers with an additional two hundred Spartans."
      Halsey's eyes widened momentarily, shocked by the size of the USNC force. " Jack, we have no idea what the Forerunner ground forces are capable of. No firm read on their offensive or defensive capabilities. All we have are a couple of small arms fire situations where we managed to catch them off guard. Surely, they see us coming."
      "Which is why we're digging in fast, before they have a chance to react. When they come out, we'll be ready."
      "What about air and space support? We've seen only one of their ships and it single-handedly devastated a Covenant task group!"
      "Don't worry, Joe. We have that..."
      "What the hell was that?" cried McFarlan.
      "I would say the Forerunners have fired the first shot," replied Halsey. During their discussion, the Cerberus had turned and the conference room window now faced Luna II. And, most of the Cerberus' escort was in full view. The frigate Raleigh Burke listed, fire pouring from her lower port side. They hit her stabilizers. She's going down, he thought. Halsey watched as a Forerunner ship approached the task force. A group of patrol ships moved to intercept the intruder. Suddenly, claxons began sounding and the lighting fell red.
      "Battle stations!" ordered Stanrich.
      Stanrich and McFarlan ran from the conference room into a corridor, already beginning to fill with the hustle of the crew preparing for combat. Halsey stood motionless, he could hear Stanrich ordering McFarlan to call in Montgomery.
      Instead of following the men, Halsey turned and entered the turbolift. "Hangar," he ordered. The doors closed and the turbolift took off. "Get to the Concordia," he muttered to himself. The ride seemed to take longer than before, but, at last, the doors opened and the landing bay lay before him. Halsey stepped out. A muffled thud. Then, an explosion! He turned to his left in time to see a bomber parked near the mouth of the hangar going up in flames. In turn, it caused a domino effect. Ships, ammunition and equipment were lit ablaze by the initial burst. Before Halsey could react, more explosions. Shrapnel and debris flew by him. Sparks rained down all around. Time seemed to slow. He noticed cargo containers tumbling from their perches, hitting the floor of the bay and rolling out of control. He watched technicians frantically clamber out of dropship parked near the oncoming destruction, running for their lives. He looked beyond them, past the mouth of the hangar and into the serene blackness of space. It would be the last thing Halsey would ever see.