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HALO: In Death's Grey Land by J. D. Ford

In Death's Grey Land -- Section I
Date: 20 September 2007, 1:31 am

"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

19 September 2007

"Soldiers are citizens of death's grey
Drawing no dividend from time's

- Siegfried Sassoon


0930 hours, 11 August 2492 (Military Calendar)
ONI Medical Facility, Lab 16A (Restricted)
in high orbit of Reach Military Complex, FLEETCOM Sector One.

      Dr. Marcus Halsey grimaced behind the thick sheet of impenetrable glass, quickly masking the expression with a trembling hand as if merely stroking his silver-streaked beard. He had gone over this moment a thousand—no, a million—times in his head, trying to prepare himself for it. Now that the moment had arrived he still felt sick.
      So much for preparation.
      The twenty-four subjects—volunteers, he silently corrected himself—were lined up in front of their individual surgical bays. The men stood at rigid attention, eyes front, nary a twitching muscle between them. Each knew what this moment meant. They knew, without a doubt, that the next few minutes and hours could very well constitute the rest of their relatively short lives. That…or the beginning of an entirely new existence.
      They fully understood the risks, thanks to Halsey, though he felt little better for it. If ONI had had its way, these men would know little more than the title of the project for which they had volunteered: ORION.
      His project.
       "You look like hell," a harsh voice growled from the shadows. Halsey jumped a little, then quickly composed himself as he turned toward the voice's owner: Captain Margaret Parangosky, Office of Naval Intelligence, Section Three.
       "Thank you for pointing that out," he replied, struggling to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He had learned very quickly that the Captain was not someone to screw around with. In fact, she was downright scary at times. All times, point of fact.
       "Don't mention it," Parangosky muttered as she stepped up to the window. Her stern, piercing gaze drifted over the volunteers. At that moment she reminded Halsey of a bird-of-prey, studying a row of lesser fowl behind protective glass. A shiver ran down his spine.
       "May I ask why you are here, Captain?" he ventured, cautiously. There could be any number of ONI top brass monitoring the procedure from the comfort of their own offices…waiting like vultures to see who would live, and who would die.
      So why did they need her here?
      Parangosky turned, firmly placing him under her iron scrutiny. He suddenly felt like an amoeba under an electron microscope.
       "You may ask," she growled. "But that would be a colossal waste of time. I'm here to bear witness to this little procedure of yours. My superiors wanted a more…personal…report than a few vids could offer." She gestured at the host of data recording equipment mounted above the surgical bays.
       "I see," Halsey replied, though he really didn't.
       "You're ready to begin, I assume?" Parangosky said with a characteristic frown. "The initial nanogen injections will undoubtedly separate the wheat from the chaff." She once again fixed her raptor-like gaze on the volunteers.
       "Yes…nearly," Halsey replied, ignoring her impatient tone. It was best to let Parangosky's 'social graces' roll off one's back. "It is likely that we will know which candidates are incompatible with the full nanotechnology regimen soon after the procedure begins…though nothing is certain. After all, this has never been tried before." He paused. "At least…not to these extremes."
       Parangosky grunted. "An understatement. Replacing more than ninety-percent of their skeletal and muscular structures with synthetic implants, using fiber-optic overlays to bypass neural pathways, and injecting them with billions of your 'omni-function cell analogs' is more than extreme." She shook her head. "They'll be a bunch of damned robots instead of men…if they survive."
       Some might have uttered the same words with a trace of pity, but not her. If the Captain ever felt such a thing as pity or remorse, no one but her own inner demons would ever know.
       Halsey tried to smother his surprise at her knowledge of the enhancement program's particulars. He hadn't expected the ONI liaison officer to keep up on the overview, much less the finer details of the augmentation process. At least, not well enough to tick them off as if from a checklist. But that was before he'd had a chance to get to know her. Sort of. He reminded himself to never underestimate the steel-eyed woman again.
       An awkward silence reigned for several moments…moments Halsey used to collect his thoughts. Parangosky was a distraction, to be sure, but a minor one in the grand scheme of things. He couldn't let her relentlessly prosecuting gaze get to him. The lives of twenty-four men were at stake. In his hands. In his damnably shaking hands.
       "Doctor Halsey," a nurse's voice sounded from hidden speakers, "We're ready for you."
       Halsey tapped the nearby COM panel. "Very well," he replied. Not that it was. The proverbial 'butterflies' in his stomach felt more like enraged hornets.
       And why was that? Why, after so many projects and so many procedures over the years, should he feel such apprehension?
       The question was purely rhetorical; he knew why.
       These men were some of the finest he had ever met. He had gotten to know them—personally interviewed each candidate—over the past twelve months. He had even had dinner on several occasions with their team leader…Captain Richard Brade. Service number 002485-24423-RB.
       The digits seemed burned into Halsey's brain. And not just Brade's…all of their identities were permanently etched in his memory. A mistake, perhaps, to get so close, knowing what was to come.
       One thing was certain…he would not forget, regardless of what happened today. Regardless of whatever code-locked, 'eyes-only' file ONI stored its obituaries in.
       Halsey cast one last glance back at Parangosky, but found no comfort in her emotionless eyes. The hatch leading into the operating room airlock clanked open with a hiss of escaping air.
       "I've heard…" Parangosky began, so softly that Halsey turned in surprise "…that you're going to call them 'Spartans'."
       He stared at her, momentarily dumbfounded by the oblique question.
       "Um…yes," he managed at last. Parangosky cocked her head quizzically, again resembling a peregrine falcon, gauging its prey. Once more, she surprised him with uncharacteristic lenity, and a faint wisp of a smile on her thin lips.
       Halsey felt his hand tremble at his side. He started to bring it up to stroke his beard again, then clamped down on the impulse. Willpower, however shaky, had not deserted him yet.
       "Do you know your ancient history, Captain? Specifically, the Greek motivations behind the battle of Thermopylae?"
       Parangosky smirked.
       "I'll take that as a 'yes'," Halsey murmured. "I decided to call them 'Spartans' for two reasons. One, the Spartans who went to that pass understood that they would probably not survive. They also understood that their deaths would be—in purely logistical terms—meaningless." He paused, meeting her iron gaze with one of his own.
       Parangosky frowned. "And the second reason?"
       Halsey took in a lungful of the cool, antiseptic airlock vapors. Blew out his cheeks.
       "They went anyway."
       She arched an eyebrow, questioningly. "That's it?" Glanced at the volunteers. Understanding seemed to dawn on her severe features…which suddenly softened, ever so slightly. "You told them." It was not a question.
       Halsey nodded. He waited for her inevitable response…some kind of angry verbal retaliation for disobeying the ONI security measures.
      It never came.
      Parangosky just stood there, looking at the men behind the glass wall. Still the predator, but no longer watching her prey. Perhaps, for just a few short moments, Margaret Parangosky empathized with them. Suddenly she looked back at him, and the moment passed. She nodded…curtly this time, as though nothing had transpired. Halsey suppressed a wry smile.
      Nothing has.
      He turned, stepping into the airlock. More clouds of the sterilizing vapor billowed up around him as the outer door slid shut. At last, the airlock finished its cycle, triggering the inner door with a barely audible hiss of hidden hydraulics. Halsey took another deep breath of the clean, impossibly odorless air, then stepped out into the surgical chamber wearing the best smile he could manage. It still felt damnably false.
      The click of his heels on the gleaming deck plates served as a sort of metronome…something he could focus on, and match his breathing to. By the time he approached the first volunteer he felt ready. As ready as he ever would be to face a man he might very well kill in less than an hour.
      The first man in line—Alec Danziger—was very young. An Ensign, recently graduated from the OCS Academy on Luna. Danziger also towered over Halsey's own considerable height and was one of the more physically suited candidates for the augmentation process.
      Despite his youth, or perhaps because of it, a determined fire smoldered in the Ensign's eyes. It seemed as though he expected to survive the coming ordeal by sheer strength of will, alone. Danziger nodded politely as the doctor turned to face him, but did not speak. Enough words had already been said in the days and hours leading up to this moment.
      Halsey returned the nod, shook the Ensign's hand firmly, and moved on. Down the line he went, spending enough time with each man to memorize something specific…to fix a facet of every volunteer's identity firmly in his mind's eye. Finally, he came to Brade, who happened to be the exact opposite of Danziger in terms of altitude, though not muscle mass.
      Brade had been designated by ONI as "officer-in-charge, confirmation pending" of the small contingent, due to his rank. Halsey had chosen him for other reasons. Thankfully, ONI's standards coincided with his own on this particular point.
      Halsey forced himself to look the shorter Marine in the eye.
      Brade returned the gaze with the same measure of good-natured calm he had always displayed, even when encountering—without adequate forewarning—Halsey's energetic young daughter, Catherine. The man had sat on the frayed rug covering the cold metal deck of Halsey's temporary quarters, patiently playing with the incredibly direct and obviously brilliant six-year-old as they waited for dinner. 'Play,' of course, referred to a detailed conversation on military rank structure…prompted by Brade's polite introduction. In short, the man had treated her as an equal.
      Such rare respect from a total stranger had pleased Catherine to no end, and Halsey still heard her mention the 'nice man with weird gray eyes' from time to time. He also recalled seeing Brade speak with the younger volunteers in a similar manner…treating them with that unpretentious surety of command that had elevated him well above the other potential OIC candidates.
      Perhaps fatally, Halsey thought, as the two men studied one another in silence. Surprisingly, Brade was the first to interrupt the wordless exchange, breaking into a familiar grin as he extended a well-calloused hand.
       Halsey was no longer surprised that he could feel the man's confidence and vitality in the solid grip. For a moment, he felt that he would surely trade places with Brade in exchange for such inner strength that could be communicated through something as simple as a firm handshake.
       "Godspeed, Captain," Halsey said softly.
       "Thank you, sir," Brade replied. He glanced down the line of stolid men. "We all wanted you to know that we accept the consequences…no matter what happens." The man paused, as if ready to say more, then closed his mouth and nodded. All necessary words had been spent, and spent well.
       "Thank you," Halsey replied, his voice almost cracking. He took a step back. Several moments passed before he was sure that his next words would emerge steadily. "Gentlemen…please take your positions, disrobe, and enter your assigned surgical chambers. I will then seal the bays and administer a sedative."
       As the volunteers hastened to comply, Halsey entered the control booth overlooking the twenty-four ovoid compartments.
       From there he would control what was, for all intents and purposes, a surgical assembly line…where all actions in the primary compartment would be precisely duplicated in the others. The host of medical computers would be monitoring the procedure, compensating for physiological differences and any anomalies in each automated chamber. In addition to the advanced computers, several doctors and technicians now clustered around each bay, prepared to intervene should anything malfunction.
       Halsey nodded sternly at the two medical techs manning the control booth. The senior of the two spoke up, taking his eyes off a holotank displaying each volunteer's vital signs only long enough to return the nod.
       "Both the sedative and phase-one nanogen injections are ready, Doctor," he said. "All surgical automation systems have been prepped, and the augmentation components are loaded into bay dispensers. We're ready when you are."
       Marcus Halsey sat at his custom-built workstation. He instantly felt the ergonomic chair conform to the size and contour of his body, even shifting form as he leaned toward the microphone hidden in the console. His hand hovered over a glowing, deliberately oversized activation control. Steady as a rock.
       Am I composer or executioner? Halsey thought bleakly. Is this my magnum opus or simply a killing blow?
       The hammer fell.



1251 hours, 18 October 2552 (Military Calendar)
UNSC Special Warfare Center
Songnam, Kyonggi Province, Korea, Earth.
Sixty years later.

       Leonidas slammed a calloused, unarmored fist into the faded green door of his locker, crumpling it like a piece of tissue paper. The sound of the blow reverberated in the hollow spaces of the locker room.
      His head hung low, eyes burning holes into the floor tiles with half-suppressed anger. Every muscle in his badly scarred, iron-hard body quivered with unnatural rage as sweat poured down in torrents, soaking his training shorts even more than they already were.
       "Bastards," he seethed, gritting his teeth. Luckily, the locker room was restricted to all other personnel following armor tests, and conveniently soundproof. He was suddenly glad for the deliberate seclusion, not knowing if he could keep himself from railing against an innocent target of convenience.
      Again, he slammed his fist into the mangled locker, this time denting the back of the compartment and the wall behind. A sob caught in his teeth, and Leonidas shrank slowly to his knees on the cold floor, cursing himself for a weak, pathetic excuse of a man.
       He hadn't cried in years. Decades. Not since his wife and daughter died on Harvest. Moreover, he hadn't so completely lost control this century. Yet here he sat, on a damp locker room floor in the middle of a military base, smashing things into oblivion and weeping like a babe.
      At last the wracking, self-deprecating grief subsided, replaced by a more characteristic calm that he wasn't sure he truly felt. Just old habits taking over out of pure necessity. Old training kicking in.
      The sound of footsteps far beyond the locker room door caught his attention. Leonidas listened as they neared, his augmented hearing picking out each step with excruciating detail. Combat boots. Well-used, but far from worn. The steady, confident gait of an officer. In an instant, he knew who it was. Who it had to be.
      The door hissed open, admitting the one man who possessed the security clearance to bypass any and all access lockouts at the Special Warfare Center. The base commander, Captain Jae Kim, ONI Section Three. He was also the only man at SWC who knew Leonidas' real name.
       "Richard," Kim said, glancing at the mortally wounded locker, "you're taking this about as well as I expected." He folded his arms and leaned against the nearest tiled wall, fixing Leonidas with a calm stare. "I suppose the locker deserved to die, judging by the smell…but at least you could've put it out of its misery in a less brutal fashion."
       Leonidas grunted as he rose easily to his feet.
       "I suppose. But then I wouldn't have felt it die. I really needed to, you know. Especially after that…bullshit out on the course." He waved angrily in the direction of the training grounds, half a kilometer away.
      Kim's lips twitched into one of his oily smiles…an expression that frequently led others to misjudge his character. He rubbed his chin, feigning deep thought.
       "'Bullshit'? Ah….I suppose you're referring to the test results. Your subject/armor synchronicity."
       "No…I'm referring to your orders, sir." Leonidas fixed the Naval officer with a menacing glare. "My synchronicity is fine. I'm fine." He started pacing, flexing his hands in pure, unadulterated frustration.
       "'Fine'," Kim echoed. "You're…'fine'." The officer let his arms drop to his sides, back suddenly rigid. "I gave that order with good cause, Richard. Your synchronicity reading was not fine. In fact, it was less than one percent away from putting you under…permanently. As in comatose. In all likelihood, irrevocably brain-dead." He stalked forward and jabbed a finger into Leonidas' massive chest. "So if you want to label something as 'bullshit' around here, you might as well start with your piss-poor idea of gratitude." Kim was glowering in full force, now. Leonidas could not remember seeing the man this worked up before. Not that he was ready to back down. Not by a long shot.
       "I'm fit for duty, sir. You can't take me off this project, not without confirmation from Cath…from Doctor Halsey. You can't…."
       "Doctor Halsey is missing, Richard," Kim said, almost shouting. "Probably dead…not to mention under suspicion of kidnapping and God knows what else." He rubbed his eyes, tiredly. "I know how much this means to you. Really, I do. Damn it, Richard, you've been here longer than me…longer than any of us."
       "That's right," Leonidas said coldly. "And she entrusted this task to me, sir. To me. Because I was the only one who could do it and not get splattered all over the inside of the suit. You've seen the vids of the first Mark IV tests. If you bench me, who's gonna take over? They need this upgrade." He resumed his pacing.
       Kim sighed. "I know, damn it. Don't think for a moment that I've forgotten. But you need to get something straight, Leonidas." His uncharacteristic use of the obsolete call sign froze Leonidas in his tracks. "Circumstances have changed, and I won't let your inner demons whip you into killing yourself out of blind loyalty to Catherine Halsey."
       Leonidas' eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
       "We have a replacement tester," Kim said, his stern gaze intensifying.
       "A replacement?" Leonidas repeated.
       "Another Spartan." Kim nonchalantly slipped out the last word, as if that alone put the capstone on his argument. Leonidas ran a hand over his close-cut, graying hair.
       "You mean a Spartan-II," he said, trying not to sound as unenthusiastic as he felt. Kim gave him an exasperated look that would've sent most subordinates running for the hills.
      Though still technically a Captain in the UNSC Marine Corps, Leonidas had been in the service almost as long as Kim had been alive. Because of that, Kim generally treated him with the respect due an officer of equal rank. Not to mention as an old friend.       ONI had forced Catherine Halsey to keep Leonidas close to home—Earth—for 'security reasons'. In the end, it had probably saved both his life and Kim's. The rest of the MJOLNIR development team had died on Reach.
       "Of course I mean a Spartan-II," Kim replied sourly. "And don't even try to feed me any of your progenitor-superiority crap. I know you don't mean a word of it."
      Leonidas realized Kim was trying to change the subject, to get his mind off of things. In all honesty, he felt the last true vestige of anger trickling away, and decided to let a wry grin crack his mask of sullen disapproval.
       "No. Not since I met John-117 on Reach…at the Mark V field test. Kid had guts. And talent. And luck." He shook his head. "I only got to try on your nifty lab coat."
      "I remember," Kim said dryly. "You and Catherine fought tooth and nail to get transit permission from ONI…just so you could swab a soldier's neck with antiseptic. Why?"
      Leonidas shrugged. "I never got a chance to meet one of them before that. We were so busy working on MJOLNIR that I…well, it just felt like something I needed to do. I needed to find out for myself if she…if they hadn't…." He felt the words seizing up in his throat as a flood of old memories came rushing back to fill the void where his anger had been. Kim stood silently, waiting for him to continue.
      Leonidas shook his head. "They butchered us, Jae. I'll never forget the agony. Months in recovery. Four out of twenty-four survived. Four." His eyes took on a haunted look. "When I found out she did it to kids." He scowled. "I just needed to make sure they hadn't turned out like…like…."
       "You," Kim finished for him.
       "Yeah. Like me. A train wreck." He waved a hand at the mangled locker. Kim smiled again, clapping his friend on the shoulder.
       "You may be many things, Richard Brade—a stubborn ass being one prime example—but a train wreck you are not."
       Leonidas snorted. "Tell that to the guys cleaning up the obstacle course."
       Kim grimaced. "I heard about that. The brass have their huge burning eyeball trained on me right now, you know. The last thing I need is an oversight committee waltzing through here, critiquing your treatment of matériel."
       "I know, sir. I'll do my best to rectify the situation." Leonidas sighed. "Do you know how long I've got?" He fixed Kim with a calm, unwavering look that spoke volumes. The Captain grimaced again, then shook his head.
       "Not yet. They're still analyzing the data from this morning. They think it's the nanogens…either pooling in the central lobe of your cerebellum or a general loss of cohesion along your dendritic overlays. In any case, it's bad. We've officially tagged your file with a spoof. You know what that means."
      Leonidas shrugged. "Yeah. But somehow I don't think I'll be as lucky as the last guy who got his med file doctored ten ways to Sunday. Not that anyone will be reading mine."
       "You mean Johnson?" Kim shook his head. "No…he's not nearly as far along as you. He got the second-gen nanotech enhancements. You're still running on version one. Not to mention the fact that he didn't get the full augmentation regimen, not after…never mind." Kim shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry, Richard. I just don't know. It could be a month or a year, or ten years for that matter. We still don't understand the brain as well as we should." He fixed Leonidas with a dark look. "However, we do know that any more time under interface stress will accelerate the deterioration. It'll kill you. And Catherine would be saying the same thing, if she were here."
      Leonidas growled. "You're right. I don't have to like it, but you're right. This body is finally giving up on me." He seemed to wilt a little, almost as if he had aged ten years in as many seconds. "I'd hoped to go after the Covenant before the end. The Marines wouldn't take me back when Mirra and…back when Harvest got glassed. And ONI wouldn't let me go." His eyes went unfocused, memories droning in his mind like thousands of eulogies.
       "I know," Kim said softly. " Catherine told me what happened with Parangosky. You're still a valuable asset, Richard…don't forget that. No matter if you can still wear the armor or not. Fight or not. You're the last of your kind. Unique."
       "Don't remind me. When does my replacement arrive?"
       Kim checked his data pad. "Tomorrow morning at 0750 hours. She'll spend most of the day getting acquainted with the system updates in the lab. We'll fit in some armor diagnostic time before the official field test at 1730."
       "So soon?" Leonidas frowned. It wasn't like Kim to rush things. Especially something as important as MJOLNIR Mark VI.
       "Yes. I've been ordered to get a suit shipped up to Cairo, ASAP. It appears that your old 'patient' SPARTAN-117 is in town…and in dire need of some new armor."
      Leonidas grinned wholeheartedly for the first time since the armor test. In an instant, he seemed to shed the world-weary mantle of age like a snake might shed a skin five sizes too small.
       "Lucky bastard has been playing rough with the bad guys. I feel jealous already."

0720 hours, 19 October 2552 (Military Calendar)
Aboard maglev transport K943,
en route to Special Warfare Center, Songnam, Korea.

      Petty Officer Second Class Maria Abrams, also known as SPARTAN-062 or Maria-062 in martial circles, tapped her fingers idly on one unarmored knee. She'd finally gotten used to wearing combat fatigues—which seemed a poor fit to someone who had practically lived in MJOLNIR armor for years—and now they were dressing her in civvies. For her own safety, the ONI agent had said. Or, more specifically: "to offset possibilities presented by increasing reports of rebel assassination attempts on high-level UNSC personnel." And that was a direct quote.
      Maria chuckled, staring out the window of the maglev train. To anyone else, the terrain flashing by at 460 kph would have seemed a total blur. She could almost pick out individual leaves on the trees. The concept of hiding a six-foot, seven-inch brunette with the muscle mass of a high-grav rugby player in civilian clothes, on a civilian train, was ludicrous. Almost as crazy as the assumption that she couldn't handle any chumps the so-called insurrectionists might be stupid enough to send her way. Emphasis on the word 'might'. Personally, she doubted they were that dumb, but who knows? ONI had certainly surprised her with her current wardrobe.
       "Stranger things have happened," she murmured against the glass, fogging the window with her breath. It was still early in the morning, local time. Still cool enough for the air outside the passenger car to be much colder than the regulated atmosphere within. She had the whole compartment to herself, with the exception of two ONI escorts…also in plain clothes that did little to hide their military background.
      The first, a squat, balding man who called himself Oboe, was possibly the meanest-looking hombre she had ever met. He had a piggish face, with beady little eyes that seemed to stab at you like daggers. Little daggers, but very, very sharp. He looked to be more heavily muscled than herself, though she doubted he could even come close to her augmented strength…in one arm.
      Jackson, the senior of the two, was by contrast a strikingly handsome man. If not for the jagged scar bisecting the left side of his face from jaw to hairline, he might have held down a job posing for recruiting posters. He never came across as hostile, or even aggressively confident.
      She could tell, simply by watching him move, that he was the more dangerous of the two. Jackson walked like a cat, sat like a cat, picked up a newspaper like a cat. He even had that vaguely interested predatory gaze that somehow seemed nonchalant at the same time. Everything about him practically screamed 'death on two legs'. Not that it bothered Maria. The least of her brothers and sisters made these two look like babes in the woods.
      She suddenly felt a slight vibration in her seat as the train began to slow. The ride into Songnam had been so smooth that she hadn't really noticed the deceleration until now. Another few minutes passed as the train continued to shed speed, affected by more and more air currents and cross-wind than when it had been travelling at top speed. When the train pulled into the terminal, it switched tracks laterally before coming to a complete stop. Maria was already on her feet, rucksack over her shoulder.
      Jackson neatly folded his newspaper, avoiding creases in the 3D display cells, while Oboe stuck his head out the nearby hatch, scanning the platform. Jackson smiled politely at her and nodded as he waved for her to precede him. Oboe was already casually leaning against a nearby lamppost by the time her uncomfortable shoes touched pavement. He gave her a serious, albeit humorously pig-like, look before hastening toward the station atrium. A pair of UNSC Marines in full battle-rattle flanked the yawning archway, scanning the crowd that had disgorged from another train farther down the platform.
      Maria watched as Jackson locked eyes with the nearest Marine. Apparently their arrival was expected, since the soldier failed to react strangely to the two rather large and imposing figures accompanying the biggest friggin' woman he'd probably ever seen. She suppressed another chuckle. Her husband, a tall man himself and subsequently not so intimidated by her unusual stature, would get a million laughs a minute if he travelled with her. Just seeing the reaction on other people's faces would be enough to get him going. Lucky for her, Val was stuck back on Luna…keeping an eye on their precocious three-year-old, Elena.
      The Marines snapped to attention at their approach, shaking her out of reverie. Maria automatically returned the salute, ignoring Oboe's grimace of distaste. If he wanted to keep up the useless charade a bit longer, that was fine by her…but she wasn't going to insult fellow soldiers in the process. Not a chance in hell.
      They passed beneath the arch, and Jackson quickly led them to another platform. The sign read, in bold English and Korean letters, 'BUNDANG MILITARY TRANSIT AUTHORITY: ACCESS RESTRICTED'. Another pair of Marines guarded this gate, and she could see a makeshift instacrete bunker with an AIE-486H Heavy Machine Gun mounted just inside. Good field of fire, too.
      Jackson's magic wand—his ONI documentation that doubled as transit authorization—quickly got them through security. Maria hadn't had to dig out her own papers since the beginning of the trip, on Luna. Now, twenty-odd hours later, she had almost reached her destination. The Special Warfare Center…Songnam, Korea. Before this assignment, she had known little more than a few rumors regarding the Center. Now, at least six ONI briefings later, she felt like she knew too much. Then again, as John had always chided her, "You can never have too much intel on a target, especially if you're gonna end up sleeping there."
      A flight of stairs took them down into a lower portion of the MTA, where a sleek subway car sat waiting. Everything looked a lot newer than upstairs, and Maria guessed it was a safe bet that whoever had built the Center had also decided a private, subterranean transport line from the city wasn't a bad idea. She tended to agree with that unknown architect. Any chance at avoiding open ground felt very safe to her…like curling up in a warm blanket of cover.
       "Almost there, Ma'am," Jackson said, passing a canteen over to her. Maria took it with a polite smile of her own and drank deep; old training that would never die. "Drink as much as you can, when you can," Mendez had told them back on Reach. "Same goes for food."
      She smiled at the memory of all her brothers and sisters stuffing their faces with chow that first week. Grimaced at the memory of all the vomit that followed on the PT course, until their stomachs got accustomed to eating so much and training so hard. There were times when she missed her fellow Spartans. Missed the adrenaline rush of combat, and the satisfying aches that inevitably marked a job well done. She flipped open her ID case. The scratched 3D image jammed inside prompted a small smile.
      Yes…she missed active duty. But nothing in all the worlds would make her trade her family for another tour . The Reserves was enough to maintain her status, sustain her edge, and keep ONI happy. Frankly, she was still surprised they had approved her request, despite the fact that she had more than enough time in to retire completely.
      After all, why would ONI let one of its most prized assets take a back seat to…'start a family'? It had almost sounded ridiculous to her too, at the time. Yet she'd still asked. Doctor Halsey had helped…of that Maria was certain. Otherwise, they probably would have told her to pound sand. Or pound more Covenant into sand, more likely. She looked out the subway car's window, into the darkness of the transit tunnel. Occasionally, a glowlamp would flicker past, like a spotlight on her attractive features.
      At least being in the Reserves had kept her off the front lines long enough to have a child. Maternity leave had doubly-guaranteed that. Now, three years later, ONI had finally called in the debt. Luckily for the brass, it was one that she felt obliged to pay.
      But why me? she thought, sourly. I've been out of it for almost four years of the war. And now they want me to test the next generation of MJOLNIR? It didn't make a whole helluva lot of sense. But then, little in the vast, sprawling hierarchy of red tape-dispensers made sense. She'd found that out the hard way, more times than she could count.
      At last, after what felt like centuries, the subway slowed. It ground to a halt inside a well-lit chamber bristling with fully-automated 70mm autocannon and ANVIL-II ASM missile pods. The weapon systems had tracked their car all the way into the bay. These guys weren't taking any chances.
      Jackson spoke into his COM, listened for a reply, and nodded his head as he received further orders. Maria felt a pang of longing for her old armor's communications suite. That kind of tactical connectivity was hard to duplicate, in terms of sheer effectiveness. She harshly reminded herself that she'd be trying out the latest version of it soon enough.
      Stop whining.
      As if to sarcastically punctuate the thought, an armored hatch groaned open on the far side of the chamber. Jackson and Oboe stood, motioning for her to follow, and the three exited the subway car on the right. They swiftly crossed the platform and snapped-to when a Navy Captain stepped through the now-recessed blast doors. He returned their salutes, then broke out in a familiar grin.
       "Hello, Maria," Kim said. "It's good to see you again."
      She smiled. "You too, sir. It's been too long." She had run training exercises under his watch on Reach. Long before the Mark V armor went operational. Back when MJOLNIR was still in its infancy, and the Covenant still an unfamiliar foe. Now he headed up the MJOLNIR development project under Doctor Halsey.
      Maria felt a sudden pang of grief. Kim was probably running it solo, now. Halsey was still AWOL…or MIA, depending on one's loyalties. Maria, for one, could never doubt the Doctor's dedication to humanity; to its survival. More than that, she never would doubt the woman's dedication to the Spartans.
      Kim looked her up and down, nodded, and turned to Jackson and Oboe.
       "Alright, gentlemen. You've delivered your package. I've got two words for you: 'shore leave'. Get moving." He pointed sternly toward the subway, prompting lopsided grins and overly-formal salutes from both men, which complemented each other poorly in terms of military decorum. The two ONI agents practically scurried back aboard the transport as Kim motioned for Maria to follow him inside.
       "I assume you were briefed on the situation?" he asked politely as they entered a security airlock. The outer doors closed with a loud clang, and a mist sprayed down on them from above.
       "Yes, sir. Several times, in fact." She tried to keep the world-weariness from her voice.
      Kim gave her a commiserating smile. "Glad to hear ONI still excels in its penchant for incredibly uninformative speeches. At least there's something consistent in this day and age." He grinned again. "Other than you Spartans, of course. I'm looking forward to getting the tests underway."
      Maria nodded fervently. "So am I, sir. I've been out of 'uniform' for four years. It'll be nice to be back in a suit again, if only for a short time."
      They rounded a turn in the corridor and faced a bank of lifts. Kim pressed his palm to a glowing panel nearby and muttered a phrase into some hidden pickup. A pair of doors opened on the center elevator. The car was wide enough to easily fit five or six armored Spartans standing abreast. Kim waved her inside, then followed. He absently tapped a sequence into the lift controls, and the car began to ascend. Maria glanced up at the ceiling.
       "I didn't know we were that far underground," she said softly.
       "Oh, yes," Kim replied, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "The Corps of Engineers completely reconstructed this base after we moved our operations here. Dug out fifty-thousand square feet of rock, three klicks down, for a new command facility. The subway only runs about a half-klick below the surface once it reaches this point."
      The lift doors hissed open, admitting them into a broad lobby. The ONI Section Three crest took up the vast majority of the far wall. Sitting before it, like some grand bastion of old, sat the administration secretary's desk. He glanced up from a bank of computer monitors, stood, and saluted crisply.
       "Good morning, sir, Ma'am," he said. Kim and Maria returned the salute without slowing. Kim was really running at max output today.
       "Morning, Brad," Kim replied as he swept past. "I trust everything held together while I was gone?" He angled toward another door. Maria guessed it led into his office.
       "Aye, sir," the secretary replied sourly. "Barely."
      This prompted a wry chuckled from Kim, who almost outpaced the automatic door's ability to open as he stepped through. Maria trailed in his wake, unconsciously scanning the room for threats and exit vector as Kim approached his desk. The edifice was twice as large as his secretary's and doubled as a massive holotank—a blinding column of holographic light eight feet tall. Kim scanned his palmprint again. A moment later the holotank displayed a detailed cutaway schematic of what could only be MJOLNIR armor. She studied it with frank interest.
       "Ah," Kim said, knowingly, "right to business. Enhanced shield recharge rate, dual weapon status tracking, denser alloys…as well as crystal layer and autonomous medical system enhancements. All in all, worlds apart from where we started, and significantly more advanced than the Mark V."
      Maria nodded absently, brows furrowed as she examined the new features, committing them to memory. She had always maintained an interest in the technical side of their equipment, though not to the same extent as some. Now it seemed that fascination would serve her well. After all, testing a prototype was far different than using battle-hardened gear.
       "When do I suit up, sir?" she asked.
       "That depends on how long it takes you to find your quarters and stow your gear."
      She was already moving toward the door.
       "Ten minutes."
      Kim turned toward the single, broad window illuminating his office. The holotank stuttered behind him, as if trying to projecting another series of diagrams. He gazed out on the expansive training grounds the Corps of Engineers had also built for him. Portions resurrected from the plans at Reach, others built on entirely new scenarios. He would throw the hardest of them at Maria. Anything less would be a travesty.
      Captain Kim smiled that infamously misunderstood oily smile. "What do you think?"
      The holotank flickered, its form shifting into a pattern of streaming mathematical equations and glyphs that went far beyond simple quantum mechanics. The glowing, robed outline of a smart AI resolved in the maelstrom…a goddess from ancient times.       Athena.
      The AI frowned. "I'm…not sure."
      Kim snorted. "Maria has been a well-trained combat veteran for nearly thirty years. A decorated hero before this war began. I think she'll take up the reigns more effectively than you realize."
       "Perhaps," Athena murmured. Kim laughed.
       "Your loyalties to him are admirable, Athena…but consider the greater picture. Richard said it himself: the few Spartans we have left will need this armor, and badly. I can no longer use him without killing him. You both know that." He sat heavily in his chair. A recessed keypad extended automatically to within easy reach. Kim entered a sequence of orders, prepping the armor for testing and readying the personnel under his command. He also called in a Pelican for the orbital drop.
      Athena crossed her pulsing arms, eyes glowing with more than mere light.
       "And what of Leonidas, of…Richard?" she asked softly, using his real name with a trace of awkward unfamiliarity. "My predecessors were very intent on emphasizing his importance to this project. Importance that transcended physical involvement. He is MJOLNIR, Captain. Every suit we have tested has tasted his sweat and blood, for over twenty years." She scowled. "And now we will just cast him aside? What will ONI do? Send him back to prison?"
      Kim massaged his temples. "I don't know. It is true that he does not officially exist…hasn't for fifty years, except on this base…with that archaic call sign. Ever since that episode on the Gower…" he trailed off.
       "Where Marcus Halsey died?" Athena prompted. Kim gazed up at her with a calculating look, as if determining how much he should tell her. Gauging how much she already knew. At last he nodded. The 'smart' AI obviously knew enough to get her deleted, so why not?
       "Yes. The other Spartan-I went mad when his nanogens malfunctioned. Berserk. He crushed Marcus Halsey's chest with a single blow. Richard had to kill him…his own man. His brother." He speared Athena with a serious glance. "No one else knows this, except for Catherine. No one else is supposed to know. She said they'd totally sealed the files. But Richard told Catherine at the funeral. And that is what pissed Parangosky off."
       "They threw him in solitary for that?" Athena asked, incredulously.
      Kim smiled wanly, chuckled. "Not quite. Catherine told me he'd also brought her father's personal files—his unofficial project journals—to the funeral. How he got them, I can't guess, and she didn't elaborate. But that, along with going AWOL to simply get to her, was enough to bring Section Zero down on him. Hard." He smiled again. "Until she sprung him, of course. Catherine had most of HIGHCOM on her side by then…which didn't give Parangosky much of a choice. I think it was the first time anybody ever kept the Iron Maiden from her victim." He grinned. "Wish I could've been there to see it."
      Athena rolled her eyes theatrically, then cocked her head with a reproving look on her angular face. She strongly reminded Kim of Catherine Halsey for a moment…in that slight change in posture. But then, Catherine had designed this generation of smart AIs. Perhaps that was why Athena knew so much about Richard, he mused.
      Responses suddenly scrolled across his console display: all departments reported ready for duty.
      Time to get your game face on, he thought with a smile. Time to finish this. He rose from his chair easily, striding with a purpose toward the door. They would need him in the control center very soon. As he approached the door, Kim paused, turning halfway toward the holotank.
       "Where is Richard, Athena? I'd like him to watch the test…see if he can pick up on anything we might miss."
      The AI looked upward for a microsecond, then: "He's in the prep bay."
      Kim hesitated. "Maria is already there, I take it?"
       "Yes. Would you like me to shut down Section Zero's feeds? They won't like him talking to her." Kim knew she would do it, too. And in such a way that Zero would never know for certain who was responsible. Athena had an unexpected gift for electronic misdirection.
       "No," Kim said after a few moments of contemplative silence. "Let them watch. If they want to mess with him today, of all days, I'm not going to deny him the pleasure of messing back." He turned smartly on his heel and walked out the door, his grin mirrored perfectly on the face of the smart AI before she winked out of existence.

1720 hours, 19 October 2552 (Military Calendar)
Testing Operations Preperation Bay (TOPB),
Special Warfare Center, Songnam, Korea.

      Maria grinned as she triggered the last seal, fully pressurizing a suit of MJOLNIR armor in preparation for action for the first time in years. She inhaled the familiarly filtered air deeply, and reveled in the enhancements to her Head-Up Display. The HUD was far more efficient in its format and included a greater image enhancement system. She immediately noticed the dual-weapons link capability that Captain Kim had mentioned.
      That should make things a bit more interesting, she thought with something akin to predatory glee. A group of ODSTs from the 105th Shock Division—her opponents for the armor testing op—were already suited up and waiting on the other side of the hanger. Apparently, they would be transported to the test site via ground vehicles. The drop zone was several kilometers closer to Songnam proper than the Center. Her orbital insertion from a Pelican would require a parabolic trajectory, so they couldn't use one of the primary training fields.
      Maria crouched next to her T-PACK, double-checking it for damage or possible indications of malfunction. The devices were notoriously fickle, as the Spartans had learned the hard way after the loss of Kurt-051 in deep space. As she initiated a final diagnostic on the T-PACK's guidance computer, and moved on to clear the action of her SRS99C-S2 AM sniper rifle, bootsteps echoed on the deck behind her.
      Heavy bootsteps.
      She set the rifle down carefully on the deck and rose, turning to face the newcomer. Surprisingly, she had to look down, and down, to stare into his eyes—old, calculating grey eyes—framed by a network of long-faded scars on a pale face. Almost like a Spartan's face, hidden from the sun for long periods of time by a polarized faceplate and helmet.
      By the sound of his step, she would have guessed him to be nearly her own seven-foot height, not twelve inches less. He wore the battle-dress uniform and twin gold bars of a Marine Captain, so she stood at attention.
       "At ease, soldier," he said, returning her salute with impeccable precision. "I just wanted to make sure you had everything you might need. The Quartermaster is not noted for being particularly free with government issue equipment." He smiled disarmingly, despite the facial scarring that might have been off-putting for others. To Maria, who's brothers and sisters bore a multitude of deformities from years of combat, the scars just made him seem more familiar. She found that both disturbing and reassuring at the same time.
       "Yes, sir," Maria replied cautiously, "thank you, sir. I've been issued all the necessary gear."
      The Captain nodded. "Good. I noticed you've already been introduced to your 'Covenant adversaries'."
       "Yes, sir," she said, a bit more casually. "Actually, Echo Three and I have a small bet."
       "Oh?" the Captain said, on eyebrow arched. "On what, if I may ask?"
      Maria smiled, unconsciously swiping two fingers across her faceplate. "He said he was going to 'go sword-happy on my ass, Elite-style', and I told him dinner was on me if he could manage to touch me with it."
      The Captain chuckled heartily, shifting his gaze over to the ODSTs.
       "Corporal Bivins!" he shouted across the bay.
       "Sir!" the Helljumper responded, snapping to attention.
       "Good luck."
       "Thank you, sir," Bivins replied dryly. "Not coming out with us, sir?" The obviously familiar, offhand remark jerked Maria's gaze back to the mysterious Captain.
      Who is this guy?
       "Not today, Corporal. You boys stay frosty out there. I want you to give the Petty Officer every ounce of your usual enthusiasm. You get me?"
       "Yes, sir!" the ODSTs responded in unison. Almost as if on cue, a column of Warthogs snarled up outside the gaping bay doors. The full-throated roar of a Pelican dropship followed closely on their over-treaded heels as the craft landed on the tarmac beyond.
      The Captain reached down to pick up the T-PACK, holding it toward her with no trace of an effort, despite its heavy outsized design. Maria easily slipped the harness around her armored shoulders, then turned back to face the Marine.
       "Permission to speak freely, sir?" she said, buckling the harness of the T-PACK and adjusting the four straps that secured a modular weapons rack to her chest.
       "Who are you, sir?" she asked.
      The Marine's eyes seemed to grow sad for a moment, then were bracketed by scars and crows' feet as he broke into a comradely smile.
       "Just an old leatherneck, Petty Officer. Nothing more." He handed over the S2 AM. "Good hunting."
      Maria took the rifle, locked it into place, and came to attention.
       "Thank you, sir." She drew up a laser-straight salute, which the Captain returned with equal formality. Maria spun towards the dropship, no longer impeded by the now-departed Warthogs, and activated her shields. The field shimmered into being instantly, just as it had in the lab less than an hour ago when the techs spun up the armor's fusion pack.
       "Watch the hydro-gel overpressure rate, Petty Officer!" the Captain yelled over his shoulder, his voice almost lost in the wake of the Pelican's thrusters.
      Maria turned to stare back at his receding form.
       "Sir?!" she shouted after him, voice amplified automatically by the armor's intuitive interface. The Marine's reply was barely audible over the din…even to her augmented hearing.
       "It spikes like a bitch!"
      Maria pondered the man's words for several moments, then turned and boarded the Pelican, strapping herself upright into the Blood Tray's cargo webbing. There was no room to sit down with the T-PACK on. She kept replaying the strange officer's advice over and over in her mind, analyzing it from as many angles as she could think of.       Something about him still bothered her, and they way he had talked about her suit's hydrostatic gel system had definitely set off alarm bells in her brain. It almost sounded like he knew what he was talking about from firsthand experience.
      Which was flatly impossible. Only a Spartan could wear MJOLNIR armor and survive intact.
      The Pelican's pilot goosed the throttle, pushing the craft upward into the sky at max acceleration. Maria welcomed the familiar g-forces like a mother's embrace, then forced all thoughts of the Captain from her mind.
      She had a mission to accomplish…and a bet to win.


0530 hours, 12 February 2496 (Military Calendar)
Aboard UNSC Prowler Art of War, in Slipspace,
approaching Eridanus Star System.

      Leonidas frowned at the recon imagery of the Rebels' orbital installation. The computer-enhanced frames were weeks old—not the freshest intel he'd ever worked with. On the other hand, it was far from rotten.
      The ship's gravity shifted subtly as she changed course yet again. The flight crew weren't taking any chances. The UNSC had underestimated this particular rebel faction before—at Far Isle Colony, among other less well known locations—and paid dearly for it in civilian blood. It looked like they didn't intend to do so again. Couldn't afford to do so again. Another intergalactic catastrophe plastered on the news nets would surely push the Colonial Military Administration to the breaking point.
      At least, that's what Leonidas had thought until he saw the intel for this particular op. He was already getting a bad feeling.
       "Ugly," Dienekes muttered from the other side of the briefing room. He bounced a yellow rubber ball against the bulkhead, catching it between different fingers every time. "This one's gonna be real ugly."
      Eurytus, seated at a table against the opposite bulkhead, only grunted. He held the barrel of his disassembled M5E pistol up to the light, inspecting its rifled bore for the tenth time, at least. The man had always been fastidious about his weapons—a personality quirk Leonidas could not find fault with.
      The rest of the team had squared away their gear an hour ago; Eurytus was just being more cautious than usual. Which inadvertently said a lot about the man's opinion of the mission.
       "We'll have to make the drop on the opposite side of Eridanus Two," Leonidas said. He touched several keys on the holotank's control pad, adding a series of waypoints to the TACMAP. The new route tracked down into the gas giant's murky upper atmosphere.
      Aristodemus—the fourth and final Spartan in the room—sat up from where he'd been catching some shut-eye next to Dienekes.
       "Slingshot around the planet?" he said with a stifled yawn, lounging contentedly in a briefing chair that had probably been designed to keep its unfortunate prisoners awake. The plastic seat creaked alarmingly as he stretched.
      Leonidas shook his head, toggling several other options on the holotank's control panel to refine the flight path.
       "No. They'd pick us up in a heartbeat, even with the stealth systems. Our best bet is to deploy the HEVs…here," he illuminated a point five kilometers above the planet's exosphere, "and infiltrate mining station V23 on the far side. We'll use the erratic atmospheric conditions for cover." Leonidas brought up an intelligence file on Eridanus' gas mining operations, scanned it for the data he needed. "According to this, there will likely be a lifter docked at the station…or en route at regular intervals. We'll hijack a mining transport for the rest of the trip into Lethe City." He locked the waypoints into the mission timeline and sent a copy up to the Prowler's bridge.
      Dienekes craned his neck to study the holodisplay, still bouncing the yellow ball. If he'd ever dropped it, Leonidas hadn't noticed.
      "The soup will probably spoof their sensors," Dienekes said, thoughtfully. "We'll have to drop fast through the vacuum but penetrate the thermal layer with minimum residual wake. Gotta open our chutes early. Really early."
      Eurytus grunted again, then added a few choice words to the mix. "So we make it down—assuming we don't get cooked in the drop pods first—and hop a transport to the mining port at Lethe City, which we can expect to be under heavy guard." He cast a characteristic frown at the holotank. "They'll still be all over us when we try to cut the cables…again, assuming we make it into the city's upper levels at all. The intel on that little chestnut is shitty at best."
      He reassembled his pistol, hands moving so fast they would have seemed a blur of flesh and metal to unaugmented eyes. Leonidas could pick out each methodical step in the process, and still had time to critique him on style, before the clack of the slide signaled completion. Eurytus holstered the weapon and moved on to check the action of his HMG-38 assault rifle, earning an eye-roll from the ever-impatient Dienekes.
       "Don't be so optimistic, Euro," Aristodemus said with a laugh. "Getting in will be the easy part. I'm worried about exfil, after we've severed the tether. They're bound to notice that." The Spartan stood, stretched until his joints popped, and snatched the yellow ball in midair, holding it up between his thumb and pointer finger.
      Dienekes grinned, lashing out with a spear hand strike that sent the ball hurtling across the room. Eurytus caught the missile inches away from his left temple, never taking his eyes off the guts of his assault rifle. He bounced it back to Dienekes with the slightest of deprecating headshakes.
       "Killjoy," Aristodemus chuckled.
      Leonidas smothered a smile, trying his best to ignore the exchange. Dienekes and Aristodemus hardly missed an opportunity to play a practical joke on Eurytus—the epitomical straight man of the group—and were impeded only by his perfected stoicism.
      As with most special forces units, a certain measure of…leniency…was called for, where decorum was concerned. When men lived on the edge as often as his Spartans did, being wound tight all the time was more than dangerous. If allowed to continue, to fester, such a condition could very well result in lethal consequences.
      A ping from the console snagged his attention—the pilot alerting him to imminent Slipspace reversion in the Eridanus System.
      Game time.
       "Alright, boys and girls," Leonidas said sharply. "Time for your pills." He scooped up a hypo of concentrated supplements and injected the 'cocktail' into his forearm.
      The Spartans' nanotech augments needed the boost, since most of the submicroscopic machines 'ran' on their normal metabolic functions. Dienekes always joked about getting fat, though they all knew it was impossible…the 'nanogens' in their digestive tracts closely regulated adipose storage, among countless other biofunctions.
      Leonidas took one last look around the compartment as each Spartan took his 'medicine,' strapped on clamshell armor segments and loose-fitting overgarments, and grabbed their gear and weapons.
      He slapped the kill switch on the holotank, picked up his own assault rifle, and shot a lopsided grin at his men.
       "Grab some barf bags, gentlemen…it's time to play 'human torpedo'."

* * *

      The Art of War lurched out of Slipspace—as dark as space itself—and spat out four HEVs from specially-designed launch tubes in her belly in quick succession. The Prowler then immediately jumped back into Slipspace.
      Time elapsed: six seconds.
      With luck, the Rebels would fail to pick up on the ship's momentary, trash can-sized blip on their sensors. Or if they did take notice, disregard it as another piece of orbiting space junk. There was certainly enough floating around.
      Leonidas gritted his teeth at the intense acceleration out of the tube. He'd been ready for it, and the jolt still rattled him in his crash harness. The pods fell into the atmosphere of Eridanus Two so fast that he barely had time to notice the spiking temperature and roaring flames beyond his tiny viewport before the heat shield sloughed away and the onboard computer deployed his chutes.
      The ensuing whiplash would've snapped the spine of a normal human…or torn limbs from body where crash webbing held them in place. Leonidas knew he would have nasty bruises for a while. At least until his nanogen systems repaired the capillary and tissue damage.
       "Report," he grunted into the SQUADCOM. They had to keep transmissions to a minimum, but he needed to know the others were still with him…not plunging toward the gas giant's liquid core, thousands of kilometers below. Three separate double-clicks sounded over his team frequency; they were already running as 'silent' as possible, lest the Rebels pick up a stray COM signal.
      His HEV's computer was already guiding the four pressurized pods toward Mining Station V23. Under breathable conditions, the drop pods' outer shells would've peeled away by now. Eridanus Two's less-than-friendly atmosphere pretty much threw the mere thought of fresh air out the proverbial window.
      Moments later, Leonidas' HEV struck the superstructure of the atmospheric station with a clang that he felt from boots to collarbones. He double-checked the fit of his breath mask and popped the pod's seal, rifle sweeping the area for possible hostiles. The pods had landed on the upper hull of the floating mining platform twenty meters apart from each other, exactly as planned. The other Spartans fanned out in a ring around the drop site, then hand-signaled 'all clear'
      At least all four of them had made it to ground—'ground' being a dubious thing on a planet without crust or mantle.
      Leonidas grabbed the cables attaching his billowing chutes to the HEV and drug the pod over to the edge of the platform. He unceremoniously pitched the capsule over the side. Once it hit the lower levels of the planet's atmosphere, little evidence would remain. None that anyone would be capable of bringing back up, at least.
      Once the rest of the team had tossed their own pods overboard, they moved to the circular access hatch nearby.
      Dienekes did the honors of placing a breaching charge, then blew the hatch cover to kingdom come. Eurytus dropped in first, followed by Aristodemus. Then came Leonidas and Dienekes, bringing up the rear.
      The station was deserted…automated. Apparently their intel had been on the level. Gas mining operations on Eridanus Two were so extensive that there weren't enough personnel to retrieve materials from all the drop-off sites. Autopilot tankers did most of the work of bringing up the mined substances from operations craft deeper in the atmosphere. In fact, one of the transports was now docked beneath the station. Leonidas grinned behind his breath mask.
      So far, so good.
      The four Spartans made their way down into the bowels of the platform, bypassing the security protocols that had been set in place who knew how many years before. Apparently, stealing gas in the amounts one tanker—or station, for that matter—could hold was more trouble than it was worth. So much the better.
      They had little trouble hacking into the transport's maintenance hatch. Unfortunately, the craft's pressure seals had long since rotted away. They would have to make the trip to Lethe City on bottled air. At least they had enough oxygen in their reserve tanks, though the thought fared poorly against Eurytus' frequent, albeit half-hearted, objections. Even he couldn't say things weren't going smoothly, for once.
      The ten hour journey seemed to take days, after the adrenaline from the drop wore off. Each Spartan settled into his own little routine for dealing with boredom. They'd had plenty of experience occupying themselves during cold insertions over the past few years.
      At last, the dust-caked display flickered to life as Lethe City traffic control took command of the transport's flight controls. The Spartans sat in silence, conserving air, hoping the Rebels didn't scan their transports for biosigns.
      Leonidas checked his timeline. They were on-schedule. The rest of Admiral Yeagley's fleet would not be arriving in-system for another one-point-five hours. That should give them enough time to discreetly disembark from the transport and make their way up into the city's maintenance areas. From there it would only be a matter of breaching the security zone around the orbital tethers and severing the Rebel's super MAC gun from its power supply and anchor. It was plain to Leonidas that the Rebels had become lax in their security methods. With any luck, that trend would continue as they infiltrated the city proper.
      The Spartans waited until the terminal locks engaged, then slipped out of the access hatch into the upper docks. They skirted a group of supervisors and made their way into a sea of empty cargo containers and gas tanks, most stacked on top of each other. An operator's paradise.
      Using schematics from their intel package, the four soldiers moved on into the nearest maintenance area. A cutting torch made short and quiet work of the rudimentary lock on the hatch, and they were in. This section of the city was, like the mining platforms, largely automated. Hopefully, that also meant 'low priority'.
      Thirty minutes and four klicks later they had reached the main level of the city. Or rather, the maze of access tunnels just beneath it. According to their intel, the fusion plants powering the cannon were located at the epicenter of Lethe. Surrounding those power complexes were the orbital platform's four massive tethers—each composite cable three hundred meters in diameter at its base. The tethers stretched up through the city's habitat dome nearly half a kilometer overhead, then out into the upper atmosphere. And beyond that, into space.
      Large sections of transparent alloy let bright columns of sunlight shine down on green parks and bustling marketplaces—strategically placed, no doubt, to take advantage of the rays. All in all, it was a beautiful place. Leonidas almost hated to stir things up.
      At his signal, the Spartans split up into teams of two. He and Dienekes moved directly toward the objective, while Eurytus and Aristodemus approached from the side—
East, approximately. They had a little secondary task to complete before the assault on the city center.
      It only took another ten minutes for them to complete their detour and get into position. Aristodemus briefly broke radio silence to report security sensors and a handful of defense checkpoints nearby. Leonidas quickly spotted their counterparts near his own location. They would have to be neutralized quickly before the alarm could be sounded.
      Slowly, silently, the Spartans crept up on the checkpoints. This was knife work, and very short work, indeed. The unlucky sentries guarding the maintenance access points to the central complex never knew what hit them as impossibly strong arms lashed out from the shadows, stealing their lives away like wraiths from the worst of nightmares.
      EM spikes took care of the sensors, but the interference would only last a few minutes and surely trigger alarms elsewhere. Not that it mattered. Their path to the tethers was now clear. Luckily, the Corps of Engineers had been able to analyze the gigantic mooring system in advance.
      The Spartans would have to scale the length of the tethers and blow them at their interlocks with the habitat dome. Destroying the massive cables at the base of the structure would not only require the use of tactical nukes—unthinkable, for the same reasons as an orbital bombardment—but would also shred the city's dome as the orbital platform tore itself loose from its anchor. Destroying the fibrous tethers at the apex of the dome was the only choice.
      The Spartans had come prepared. Each carried his own climbing gear, and each could ascend the inner surface of his own tether with incredible speed, despite being nearly inverted for the first half-kilometer.
      Leonidas studied the layout one last time, cold eyes scanning the intervening distance for activity. Patrols were far more numerous here, but they had been easily avoided in the mass of deserted buildings. The Rebel command hierarchy had cordoned off this entire section of the city to build the platform anchor site. Apparently, they didn't worry about trespassers too much. He guessed that examples had been made, early on, that discouraged such violation. Harshly.
      He gave the signal. All four men immediately split up, heading for their designated tethers via different routes. It was the best possible way to avoid detection. Their armor and outer garments would hopefully shield their infrared signatures from prying eyes. Good fieldcraft would do likewise for observers of the visible spectrum. Leonidas slipped a suppressor from his combat harness and attached it to the end of his M5E's threaded barrel. Footsteps echoed around the corner of the narrow alley he had chosen for his final approach.
      Leonidas glanced up at the walls of the buildings to either side, then gathered his legs beneath him and leaped upward. His feet shot out to one wall, left hand to the other. His right arm, gun in hand, was held tightly at his side. Synthetic muscles coiled in anticipation. The footsteps drew closer. Not a single quiver ran through his body—he could hold this position for hours if need be.
      The oblivious soldier stepped into view ten feet below Leonidas' perch. The man rounded the corner, glanced back the way he had come, and lit a cigarette. A puff of acrid smoke drifted up to assault Leonidas' enhanced olfactory perception. He extended his arm, pistol tracking right down the vertical axis of the soldier's body. His aim never wavered.
      The soldier's radio crackled to life, and he jumped nervously. Leonidas held his fire, listening to the report with interest. Apparently, their anti-surveillance handiwork in the tunnels had been detected at last. Pathetic. The guard was tersely ordered to investigate, and Leonidas waited for him to acknowledge the command before pulling the trigger. The man's helmet tipped forward as he chinned his throat mike, revealing the back of his neck and head. Leonidas shot him through the brainstem.
      Before the body had time to topple he was already dropping from his seemingly awkward posture to arrest its fall. A long-abandoned dumpster served as a convenient place to conceal the corpse. Moments later, he was once again moving toward the nearest tether.
      Nearly three hundred yards of open, rubble-strewn ground separated the mouth of the alley from the massive cable. The power complex lay beyond, shrouded in the tether's mammoth shadow. He could see signs of energy transmission technology being set in place, though obviously not operational yet. Given a few more weeks, the Rebels would likely have had redundant power supplies for their fearsome defensive weapon.
      Leonidas glanced at his timeline. Forty minutes to go. He triggered the charges Eurytus and Aristodemus had set in a munitions dump one kilometer to the East. The explosion was loud and visually impressive, complete with billowing mushroom cloud. That should focus some of the Rebels' attention elsewhere. Leonidas scanned the open space for movement, shucked his antithermal overcoat, and burst into motion.
      In moments, he was up to a blistering seventy kilometer-per-hour sprint across the square, kicking up dust and debris as he ran. He could only maintain the taxing pace for a handful of seconds before damaging himself, but that was enough to eat up the intervening ground between his hiding place and the base of the tether. As he lunged into the relative shade beneath, a vast network of spotlights flared to life. Motion sensors.       Leonidas immediately triggered his climbing harness and snapped the hand- and foot-clamps into place. The gear used a combination of monomolecular barbs and suction to achieve near-miraculous adhesion to just about any surface. The two modes of attachment worked in perfect tandem, allowing the user to maintain a pace other systems could not hope to match.
      This he did, scrambling up the underside of the tether with a speed borne of his enhanced abilities and sheer determination. If he could clear the immediate area, there was a good chance the guards and ground-based sensor grid would not detect him. After all, who would be crazy enough to climb the backside of a smooth, kilometer-high surface with hundreds of weapons emplacements sitting directly below?
      Leonidas glanced up—down—and across at the opposing tether. His augmented vision easily spotted Aristodemus' outline moving up the surface, despite the more than adequate camouflage they all wore. He continued climbing, meter by meter, up the tether. The power complex was a hive of activity now, a blaring of klaxons and shouting of orders. Apparently, the motion sensors hadn't been that good…or the Rebels didn't want to risk firing at targets on the tethers themselves. He hoped for the former, planned for the latter.

* * *

      The Spartans covered the distance to the habitat dome in record time, considering the fact that their climb became vertical at the halfway point. Minutes later, Leonidas had his answer. The howls of approaching dropship engines echoed in the chill air. Leonidas' gaze automatically scanned what little sky he could see for the incoming craft. Their chin guns and missile pods—if the Rebels had missile pods—would make short work of his Spartans. That is, if they were spotted before they could reach the tether interlock platforms.
      He looked up. Only two hundred meters to go. The bottommost platform almost seemed close enough to touch. He doubled his pace, straining to cover the distance in as little time as possible. The sound of drop ships circling the tethers—now only one hundred meters in diameter—was ominous.
       A burst of fire from an aircraft's chain guns streaked between two gigantic cables. The armor-piercing rounds spanged off of the metallic surface with a shower of sparks and molten composites, stitching a short line across the northwest pylon until the craft's motion put the cable between it and its target. That was Eurytus' pylon, and Leonidas' took a moment to scan the surface for a sign that he had been hit. He saw nothing on the tether's marred exterior, and no lifeless corpse plummeting to the ground below.
       The dropship swung back into view, crossing between the northwest and northeast pylons this time. And it was staring straight at him. The chain gun set into the nose of the craft belched flame again, and Leonidas instinctively disengaged three of the four clamps holding him to the tether, swinging his body along the curved surface to avoid the incoming rounds.
       He barely did so, catching droplets of molten slag on his exposed skin. Fragments of the alloys used in the tether's construction rattled off his back armor, though none of the shrapnel seemed to penetrate. He shifted position again as the dropship pivoted in the air, tracking him. He alternated his movements between lateral and upward progress, totally at random, trying desperately to traverse the last few meters to the platform above.
       A round punched into the tether beside his right leg, shattering the outer surface of the cable and chewing into the unarmored side of his thigh like a colony of termites in rotten wood. He felt little pain—thanks to the specialized nanogens that saturated his nervous system—but an odd tickle seemed to spread from the region as his turbocharged immune system set to work.
       The synthetic muscles in his leg had absorbed the off-center impact much better than organic analogs would or could have. They still functioned, although the gaping wound bled profusely. That would cease in moments, again thanks to his augmentation. He lurched forward, using all of his strength to catapult himself to within reach of the platform's edge. The dropship pilot nosed his craft forward, beneath the network of platforms that connected all four tethers near the ceiling of the habitat dome. A gutsy move.
      Too gutsy.
      A trio of muzzle flashes opened up from above—HMG-38s firing on full-auto. The Spartans had been outfitted with AP-HE—Armor Piercing-High-Explosive—rounds for their weapons. While the dropship was certainly designed to withstand small arms, the concentrated fire from three such rifles cycling twenty rounds per second were too much for the craft's transparent canopy to withstand.
      Rounds pierced the cockpit and lit its interior with muted flashes as the rounds incendiary effects wreaked havoc inside. Smoke erupted from the shattered canopy as the craft careened off the nearest tether and plummeted, out of control, toward the city below.
      Leonidas lunged for the platform railing, caught it with one hand, and pulled himself over the side. He found himself hoping the dropship would find a nice, unprotected munitions dump like the one they'd already blown to land on…if only to cause the enemy more grief. Leonidas got to his feet, rifle already unslung and tracking across the network of gangways and ramps. He trotted toward his teammates, who were already breaking out their explosives.
       "Area secure, sir," Dienekes said. "Glad you're still in one piece."
       "So am I," Leonidas replied with a grin. "Good shooting." He looked them over as he pulled his own complement of shaped charges from the Damage Pack at the small of his back. Eurytus had a large combat bandage stuck to his left bicep, black with unnaturally fast-drying blood. The man didn't look up from his work, attaching a remote detonator to one brick of C-10.
       "I'm fine, sir. Just a scratch." Eurytus deftly finished the charge and moved on, though Leonidas noticed that his right hand was not functioning as it should. He nodded, attaching his own detonators and clipping the charges to the front of his utility belt. As he stood, the other three Spartans stood with him. The roar of two more dropships thundered in the cathedral-like space, and a lance of white-hot fire tore at them.
      The rounds swept Aristodemus off his feet, slamming him to the deck as the rest dove for cover. The wounded Spartan used his one remaining arm to roll himself away from the incoming fire. Blood gushed from the stump of his arm and what was left of his leg tore free at the hip. More blood spurted from a dozen gashes in his right side where the 40mm rounds had punched all the way through his body armor.
      Leonidas swore viciously, then made use of his grenade launcher attachment. He, Eurytus and Dienekes sent six of the powerful munitions sailing toward the attacking craft in half as many seconds. The twin dropships banked sharply away from each other, trying to stay in constant motion to avoid their dearly-departed comrade's fate. As the grenades sailed between them, the Spartans triggered the 'airburst' function.
      Six powerful explosions bathed the dropships in clouds of fire and smoke. Both craft rolled away, hulls pitted and engines guttering in mechanical agony.
      Leonidas tossed his charges to Eurytus and Dienekes, pointing toward the tether interlocks above as he knelt at Aristodemus' side. The two Spartans charged up opposing ramps, heading for the key points where the charges must be planted to ensure proper severance.
      Aristodemus coughed up bright red blood, eyes fluttering. He gripped Leonidas' arm so hard he feared it would snap.
       "Finish…it," the wounded Spartan choked out. His eyes cleared as nanogens flooded through his system, frantically tweaking every possible biofunction to sustain life and consciousness at the same time. A Spartan needed both to complete his mission.       Leonidas pressed the last of his bandages against the man's wounds; he'd run out before half were plugged. The nanogens could heal most injuries, if given time, but even their unseen technological wizardry was outmatched by the horrific damage to Aristodemus' battered body. The soldier was fading quickly, and there was no way they could get help to him in time. He knew it as well as Leonidas did.
       "Leave." Aristodemus whispered, weakly.
      Leonidas shook his head. "Can't do that, Marine. We never leave a man behind. Hang on…we'll get you an evac." He toggled over to SQUADCOM. "How much longer?"
       "Almost done, boss." Eurytus replied gruffly. "Dienekes is setting the last charge."
       "Roger. I'm calling for evac now, over."
       "Copy that…out." Eurytus severed the connection. Leonidas glanced back down at Aristodemus and froze. The man was dead. He had a strange, peaceful look on his face. A shadow of the old grin that usually played across boyish features. Leonidas gritted his teeth.
      Way too young to die.
      The thought seemed to echo as he slung the body over his shoulder and pounded up the nearest ramp, triggering his COM transponder. A hail of small caliber bullets skittered across the catwalk overhead, causing him to dive for what little cover there was. His rifle blurred upward, tracking the threat with inhuman speed and precision. A snap-shot shattered the face of an armored Rebels three levels above. The follow-up tore out his neighbor's throat in an abrupt cloud of blood and gore.
      Dienekes and Eurytus dropped from the catwalk above, landing to either side. Dienekes was bleeding from multiple flesh wounds, but otherwise seemed fine. Eurytus was moving a little more sluggish than usual—probably due to the damage he'd already sustained. The three surviving Spartans hustled to the far end of the platform, then moved up the ramp to the next level, partially sheltered by the habitat dome's innermost layer.
      Only a few meters of metal and composites separated them from air so thin it might as well have been hard vacuum. Huge, flexible spacers between the tethers and the dome's superstructure were visible. That's where the charges had been placed…at exact intervals and angles to achieve the desired result.
      Leonidas, no longer worried about detection, tapped into the FLEETCOM channel. He grimaced at the report of two destroyers lost to the MAC gun. Admiral Yeagley had deployed earlier than planned, and apparently within range of the platform. A host of frantic voices flooded the channel as a third destroyer, the Tempest, went down. He set the remote detonator function of his command COM unit to standby.
       "We're gonna have to blow it now!" he shouted as more enemy troops materialized on the far side of the level. The three Spartans opened fire, cutting down the Rebels in seconds. An armor piercing bullet struck Eurytus' chest plate at an oblique angle, ricocheting into the lightly-armored joints holding the two halves of Leonidas' armor together. The bullet tumbled against his ribcage, but failed to break the artificial bone analog. He ignored the wound, continuing to fire in the general direction of the enemy troops.
       "They're above us, sir!" Dienekes yelled back, pointing toward the far side of the platform. "They must have an access hatch leading up to the gun!" Leonidas watched him and Eurytus exchange glances.
       "Very well," he grunted. "Let's get the hell out of here." The three stood, Dienekes helping Leonidas get to his feet, while Eurytus picked up Aristodemus' body with his bad arm. They moved in unison toward the far side of the platform, constantly scanning for targets. They found the access hatch, guarded by two Rebels who were apparently debating what to do at that exact moment. The Spartans decided for them.
      Dienekes hacked the hatch in less than a minute, took a few rounds in the armor from soldiers on the far side…which he answered with a concussion grenade. The Rebels folded like an accordion under the combined fire of the three surviving super-soldiers, who pushed through their ranks with a combination of controlled bursts from the HMG-38s and bone-shattering blows with fist and boot and rifle butt. Dienekes lobbed frag grenades all the way up the helical shaft, and shrieks of fear that were suddenly cut short by muffled thumps attested to their lethality.
      At last, after what seemed like an eternity in hell's staircase, they made it to the bowels of the orbital platform. Leonidas smashed a hammer-fist into the emergency containment control of the access hatch, sealing it off. Then he braced himself between two support beams.
       "Fire in the hole!" he bellowed, and triggered the charges.

1012 hours, 12 February 2496 (Military Calendar)
Aboard UNSC Cruiser Henry B. Gower,
in high orbit over Eridanus II.

      Marcus Halsey ran down the well-lit corridor at full tilt, flanked on either side by medical personnel and led by a contingent of heavily armed Marines. A train of gurneys and support staff followed in his wake. They reached the primary hanger bay minutes later…why are the damned lifts so far away?...and watched as the battered dropship carrying his Spartans settled to the deck.
      The hatch to the rear compartment dropped with a reverberating clang, though no one emerged for several seconds. Then a shaking figure, covered in blood that was obviously not his own, crawled down the ramp. Halsey's face went white when he recognized Dienekes. Or rather, the shell of what had been Dienekes.
      The fragment of a man standing before them babbled to himself incoherently, stumbling forward with eyes that seemed more than wild. He howled, then simply collapsed in a heap on the scarred deck plates, shivering uncontrollably. Halsey at his side to administer a sedative specially designed to work collaboratively with the nanogens—mainly so they would not treat it as an invasion. Dienekes twitched spasmodically for several moments before lying still, his breathing erratic. Halsey motioned for two med techs to get him on the first gurney, then ran toward the dropship.
      The Marines had already entered and, presumably, cleared the transport's blood tray. Halsey almost vomited when he saw how aptly the compartment had been named. Even the Marines—hardened veterans all—were pasty.
      It looked like a cluster bomb had gone off in inside the confined space. Gore was spattered across every surface, blood slicked the deck in an unholy sheen. A groan emerged from the carnage, and Halsey's heart stopped when he saw a corpse that was barely recognizable as Aristodemus move. It rolled over, revealing a battered Leonidas, blinking as the bright lights from the Marines' assault weapons played across his battered face.
      Halsey shuffled over to him, struggling to maintain his balance on the slippery deck, and went to his knees at the Spartan's side—oblivious to the viscera that soaked through his pants. He ran a bioscanner over Leonidas, felt for a pulse. The man was alive, though barely. His life signs fluctuated at random, in a way Halsey had never seen before. He was also picking up an unusual amount of residual electromagnetic radiation in the sub-dermal tissues and, especially, synthetic components. He snapped his fingers, and two more medics hustled inside, even more oblivious to the slaughter than Halsey. They carefully transferred the softly-moaning Spartan to the collapsible gurney, then rushed him back down the ramp.
      Halsey did vomit, then, when he spotted a tattered scrap of uniform with 'Eurytus-003' stenciled on it. The dented and pitted hatch leading to the cockpit squealed open, barely functional, to reveal a horrified pilot.
       "Dear God…" the man whispered, his face turning white as a ghost. "We heard an explosion, but I didn't think…shit." He staggered back out of sight and promptly lost whatever contents his stomach had been holding. His copilot took one look and almost fainted. Halsey couldn't blame him. He too felt like he could collapse at any moment. Familiar bootsteps rang out on the ramp behind him, and firm hands took him by the shoulders…almost lifting him bodily from the gory mess.
       "Sir, we have to get down to sickbay right now," Petty Officer Franklin Mendez said softly. "They're having trouble with Dienekes." He helped Halsey stagger down the ramp, as if guiding a lost child.
       "Right," Halsey said, shakily. He spotted the commander of the Marine detachment. "Get two body bags. Put Aristodemus in one, and everything else in the other. Now." The last part came out as a growl.
       "Yes, sir!" the Gunnery Sergeant shouted, then went about the task himself, face grim. Apparently, he had seen more than his fair share of death in the past. This was just another sad tale to add to his repertoire.
      Halsey clapped Mendez on the shoulder. "Let's go." They made it back to the lifts in less time than he had expected; the trip down to the hanger had seemed to take ten times as long. Mendez jogged easily at his side, face locked in an unwavering mask. He was the only other ORION subject deployed on this mission—a 'gen-two', or 'partial augmentation' version of the Spartan super-soldier. ONI had shut down the original program after the initial surgeries produced a horrific mortality rate of eighty-four percent. After that, the nanogen technology was refined and tested on other volunteers…with much greater success, albeit less spectacular results.
      As the express lift slowed, opening directly onto the wide medical bay, Halsey was treated to another disturbing scene from hell. Dienekes, screaming at the top of his biosynthetically enhanced lungs, tearing at his own restraints. Apparently, his ultra-fast metabolism had burned through the sedative in far less time than it should have. The orderlies and medics were struggling to keep him down. Another was prepping a hypo, though how he would get close enough to use it Halsey couldn't guess.
      He and Mendez charged into the fray, and the addition of the partial-augment's greater strength seemed to turn the tide. Halsey snatched the hypo from the orderly, dodged an instrument tray sent flying by one of Dienekes' flailing limbs, and lunged in toward the manic Spartan.
      Dienekes' wild eyes rolled toward him, and the world seemed to stop as the soldier's muscles bunched, coiling unnaturally beneath his skin. The restraints holding him down snapped with a loud twang, and he shook off the medics with a look of twisted contempt on his face. Only Mendez was able to keep hold of him, and proceeded to lock an arm around the Spartan's neck. It wasn't enough.
       "Get away from me!" Dienekes howled, ramming Halsey's chest with an open-palm strike that sent him hurtling away from the table. Stars erupted in Halsey's vision, exploding in supernova of white-hot pain. Talons of agony curled around his shattered sternum as his ribcage collapsed. He coughed, and was shocked to see bright arterial blood on the polished deck beneath his face. A lance of pure anguish transfixed his guts.
      I'm dying. The realization brought with it an overwhelming sorrow. He thought of his daughter. She would have to live without him; survive without him. He didn't want that. God, how he didn't want that.
      Dienekes reached up and grabbed Mendez by the arm, throwing him over his head with little apparent effort. The gen-two soldier slammed into an equipment cabinet fifteen feet away, then crashed to the ground—unconscious.
      Halsey held on to the unraveling threads of consciousness with all his will, struggling to keep his mind working.
       Keep thinking! he screamed at himself. That will keep you alive long enough to end this!
      Dienekes was displaying more strength than the norm—even for a Spartan. Halsey's eyes tracked over to a bioscan monitor as darkness crowded the edges of his vision. The readout showed a glowing, real-time representation of Dienekes' brain. Tiny points of blue light were pooling in the amygdala and medulla, as well as the pituitary gland. His adrenaline, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine levels were off the charts.
      The nanogens. Sudden realization dawned in some remote corner of his mind that wasn't overcome by the intense agony in his chest. Halsey wheezed, crawling toward the fallen hypo that was just beyond his reach.
      The nanotechnology had malfunctioned. That electromagnetic radiation he'd detected earlier was too strong…the dropship must have been caught in the EM blast when the MAC gun's capacitors blew. It was a miracle the pilot had been able to maintain control.
      Halsey coughed again, felt more blood trickle over his chin. On his back now, he pushed himself forward with his legs, each centimeter more tortuous than the last. He felt his strength ebbing. The silvery handle of the hypo wavered as tears clouded his eyes; he wasn't going to make it.
      Dienekes screamed again, grabbing his head with both hands. He tore out patches of hair and ripped another medical table right out of the deck, bolts and all. The bed went tumbling end over end to crash against the far bulkhead.
      Suddenly, the berserk Spartan froze, as if noticing Halsey's slow progress for the first time. His eyes flared with insanity as they tracked from the doctor to the hypo, and back. Then over to the hypo again. He snarled, marching toward Halsey with all the rage of a deranged Titan, set free from Zeus' prison.
      Halsey's fingers closed around the hypo as the bloodstained sole of Dienekes' combat boot hovered a foot above his face. His eyes fluttered, anticipating the final blow.
      It never came.
      A blur of fatigues and shredded armor crashed into the berserk super-soldier, sending them both tumbling through a sea of computer terminals and equipment stands. Sparks flew from mangled machines as two molecularly dense bodies struggled against one another.
      Leonidas. Halsey winced as he brought the hypo up to rest on his chest. Pain exploded at the spot. He ignored it. The strength in his left arm was utterly spent, so he reached up with his right hand and twisted the hypo's dosage control all the way around. A pulse of red light strobed from its status indicator, warning of a dose that was lethal ten times over. Halsey turned his head to the left, just in time to see Dienekes bodily slam Leonidas against a support pylon. The wounded Spartan's armor crunched audibly at the impact, and left a large gash in the pylon. Dienekes stood over Leonidas, murderous triumph in his eyes.
      Leonidas' coldly defiant gaze was frightening in its intensity as his eyes locked with Halsey's. The doctor smiled savagely for the first time in his life, and hurled the hypo with the last of his strength. The agony in his chest blossomed anew, and he felt something vital tear inside. Spasms wracked his body as he watched the hypo clatter on the deck a meter short of its target.
      It slid just within reach of Leonidas' outstretched hands. Dienekes raised both arms, locking his fingers in a hammer blow that would surely finish his weakened brother. Fury raged unchecked across his blood-encrusted features. The blow fell.
      Leonidas twisted his body beneath Dienekes, one arm deflecting the descending strike, the other lashing out with a speed any cobra would have envied. He stabbed the injector under Dienekes' chin, burying it to the hilt in the man's throat.
      Depressed the trigger.
      A long hiss echoed in the medical bay as the hypo's pressurized contents emptied into Dienekes' bloodstream. The man's eyes grew wide, pupils dilating as the overdose flooded through his system. The nanogens throughout his body latched onto the sedative molecules at first, helping them along. Then, when his brain realized what was happening, they attacked savagely. Too late.
      Dienekes' back arched violently. He spasmed once, twice, mouth agape. A full-throated roar escaped his lungs. Leonidas added his own anguished voice to the haunting death cry. Then, like an ancient redwood struck by merciless lightning, Dienekes fell to earth.
      Leonidas caught him, easing the lifeless body to the deck with a strangled sob. He had done the unthinkable…killed one of his own.
      Halsey watched the scene unfold with terrible clarity. His breathing was ragged, failing. He lost consciousness, then came back to the world with Leonidas' grey eyes staring down into his own. He vaguely felt the Spartan's corded arms supporting him, cradling his head in the soldier's lap.
       "You had to…" Halsey breathed, struggling to string the words together. "You had…no…choice." He coughed up more blood. Droplets spattered Leonidas' face, joining the long-dried stains of his other brothers' demise. The man nodded sorrowfully.
       "I know Marcus. Don't worry about me."
       "I'm not," Halsey chuckled—tried to chuckle. "I'm worried…about my daughter." Another cough. "She's so smart…a threat…to them, eventually." He fumbled for his right pocket. Leonidas reached inside and withdrew a small data crystal. Halsey closed his hand around the Spartan's. "Everything," he whispered, frowning. "Catherine."
       "I will, Marcus," Leonidas choked out. "I'll watch over her. I promise."
      Halsey marshaled the strength for one last nod, one final smile. His right hand squeezed Leonidas' closed fist faintly.
       "Adelphos," he exhaled. Brother.
      Leonidas squeezed his eyes shut, tears rolling down scarred cheeks. He hung his head, and for the first time in his life felt utterly alone.


In Death's Grey Land -- Section II
Date: 1 December 2007, 1:58 am

"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

30 November 2007

"Soldiers are citizens of death's grey
Drawing no dividend from time's

- Siegfried Sassoon



First cycle, 15 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Aboard Assault Carrier Righteous Transgression,
in Slipspace.

      Arco 'Karnamee pursed his scarred mandibles in frustration as he stalked down the glowing corridor to the Exalted One's private chambers. He was a Zealot—one of the highest ranks a Sangheili warrior could hope to achieve. Oddly enough, the most difficult aspect of ascending to such a vaunted position had simply been suffering through tasks that were far from the battlefield. Far from glory.
       'Karnamee grunted.
      Glory…so many substitute its pursuit for intelligence…its rewards for wisdom. We are drunk with the blood of our enemies. Gorged to the very brink of weakness on our...glory. He clenched his fists tightly, ignoring the pain as claws dug into the tough, battle-hardened skin beneath his golden gauntlets.
       'Glory' was exactly what the High Prophet of Regret—distinguished member of the Hierarch triumvirate and paragon of the San 'Shyuum race—had promised them in his latest 'sermon,' now less than a few units old. Their relatively small task force of two Assault Carriers and only thirteen CCS-class Battlecruisers had been spontaneously renamed the 'Fleet of Glorious Fulfillment' by the Exalted One's decree. It was now spearheaded by the newly-rechristened flagship 'Righteous Transgression.'
      'Karnamee had detected a barely-suppressed undercurrent of displeasure from many Sangheili over the change. To so dishonor a great warship of the Covenant on the eve of battle was unthinkable, not to mention an ill omen. Not that 'Karnamee truly believed in omens. They had never stopped him before, nor kept him from achieving victory.
      Which was most assuredly the reason he had been summoned to the Exalted One's enclave. Though he was officially ranked as a Zealot in the chain of command, 'Karnamee did not lead this so-called 'fleet.' No, Supreme Commander Teva 'Zar Beloramee held that dubious honor, and spent most of his time pandering to the Hierarch in an attempt to prove himself worthy. In all honesty, 'Karnamee was not overly troubled by the slight to his honor, now that the High Prophet's plans had been revealed...at least in part.
      For a reason known only to the Hierarch, 'Karnamee had been assigned to the task force as Special Operations Commander, as evidenced by the olive secondary coloration of his armor. He had long been considered the foremost veteran of all Spec Ops legionnaires, since before the war with the humans began. Wasting his experience in a subordinate position to an importuning schemer like Teva 'Zar Beloramee was…unexpected. Under normal circumstances, it would have been most humiliating. However, as much as he disliked politics, 'Karnamee could not bring himself to doubt the wisdom of the Prophets.
      It was their lackeys he did not trust. Those like the Supreme Commander, or the High Prophet's Jiralhanae adviser, Bracktanus. According to reports, the adviser had killed a Sangheili Honor Guard who tried to prevent his entrance to a holy shrine. The thought of such blasphemy instantly brought 'Karnamee's simmering frustration to a boil. It was no great wonder that the lesser races, and even the humans, called them 'Brutes.'
      The Honor Guards standing on either side of the enclave entrance snapped to attention as he approached. 'Karnamee nodded his approval of their vigilance, his mandibles clacking sharply in wordless respect. The massive, armored petals of the hatch split with a soft tone, revealing the private chambers of Regret, High Prophet of the Covenant. The San 'Shyuum hierarch hovered on his anti-gravity throne at the center of the vast circular compartment, studying a sea of holographic readouts. Data scrolled in every direction, and the image of a planet with only one moon dominated the display.
      The Jiralhanae adviser, Bracktanus, loomed in the shadows behind the High Prophet, leaning against a support pylon with arms crossed. The warrior's heavy-lidded eyes were half-closed, as though he were about to fall asleep. To 'Karnamee, the expression of near-reckless disinterest only served to make the heavily muscled Brute seem more menacing. As Bracktanus intended, no doubt.
      The Jiralhanae warrior fixed him with a calculating glance, then grunted softly. The Hierarch pivoted toward the hatch, as if on cue, his posture straightening in the sign of respect reserved for honored, high-ranking subordinates.
      "Welcome, Commander 'Karnamee!" the High Prophet intoned. "I am most pleased with the timeliness of your arrival. We have much to discuss."
      'Karnamee went down on one knee, penitently lowering his head as he spoke. "I am honored by your invitation, Exalted. Command me."
      The Hierarch nodded serenely. "You may rise." He waited for 'Karnamee to gain his feet, then gestured with one delicate limb toward the swirling pillar of holographic light. "Our destination, Commander. Detection probes recorded these images just units ago, allowing us to match reference points from archeological research to topographic coordinates. We now have primary and secondary objectives. And…complications."
      "Complications?" 'Karnamee echoed.
      "Yes," the Hierarch said with a grim look. "It appears that this world has already been colonized by the humans. Their infestation of the planet and its solitary satellite is most extensive. We estimate the total population to be in the billions." He touched a hidden control, magnifying the image to present a close-up view of installations in high orbit around the planet. "They also have hundreds of orbital platforms like the ones we crushed at the world the humans once called 'Reach.' These appear to be significantly larger in size, and are likely more powerful."
      'Karnamee studied the humans' defenses carefully, noting potential points of weakness and possible routes where covert insertions could be more successful. He had also spotted many human attack ships in both near and far orbit, all of which were Type C-II or greater. Perhaps they have found something of value on this world…something worth protecting?
      "What are our objectives?" he asked, respectfully.
      "We seek relics of great import," Regret replied, "relics that will lead us toward the final initiation of the Great Journey. The holy texts indicate that this world should have several Forerunner installations of note…at least three on the planet's surface, and one on the moon." The High Prophet shifted the display viewpoint to focus on the planet's orbiting counterpart. The image rotated, bringing the moon's southern pole into view. A point of red light pulsed brightly over the image of a small crater, approximately nineteen units in diameter.
      "This is your primary objective, Commander," Regret continued. "According to our studies of the holy texts and relics recently acquired from conquered worlds, an important Forerunner artifact is buried here, below the surface. The 'Wellspring.'"
      "Wellspring," 'Karnamee repeated thoughtfully, running the unfamiliar word over his mandibles. "What is its purpose?"
      The High Prophet smiled wanly. "That is unimportant, for now. The simple fact of the matter is that you must recover it, at all costs." He waved a withered hand toward the Jiralhanae adviser. "Bracktanus will accompany you as my Ossoona. He will be my Eye and my Voice, as well as the one responsible for taking physical possession of the Wellspring."
      'Karnamee's head snapped up, his gaze fixing on the Brute. He pushed down the surge of rage that mingled with disbelief. Bracktanus, still in a state of repose against the pylon, snorted with something akin to arrogant satisfaction. 'Karnamee felt his muscles relax—just as they did before he attacked an opponent.
      The High Prophet chuckled softly at 'Karnamee's reaction, putting up a placating hand. "Peace, Commander. You will remain in overall command of the mission, and your warriors will answer only to you. Bracktanus' role is one of pure observation…and, eventually, the secure transport of the holy relic." His eyes narrowed. "I trust you have no objections to this plan?"
      'Karnamee shoved his anger back down into the depths from which it had sprung, forcing his temper to recede. "No, Exalted. I have no objections. When do we begin the assault?"
      Regret fixed him with a sly glance. "It has already begun. We are projected to exit Slipspace in five units. I trust your warriors will be ready to deploy in time?"
      'Karnamee nodded. "They await your command, Exalted." He knelt before the anti-gravity throne. "As do I." He could feel the burning gaze of the Jiralhanae adviser on the top of his armored head.
      There would be trouble between them, 'Karnamee realized in a sudden flash of foresight. The Brute's role as Ossoona was not as simple, in this case, as the Hierarch had described. He silently vowed that his naked back would never be presented to the Jiralhanae. No…the kin-slayer was not to be trusted.
      "Excellent!" Regret pronounced with a gracious bow of his wrinkled head. The holographic symbol on his elaborate, life-supporting crown pulsed brightly, as if it were perfectly attuned to the High Prophet's emotions. "Go. Do not fail."
      "I will not, Exalted." 'Karnamee glanced for a moment at the motionless Bracktanus, then turned on his hoof and strode confidently from the chamber. Before the doors slid shut behind him he heard the Jiralhanae speak in that deep, rumbling voice:
      "He will not fail, Exalted One…I will see to that."
      'Karnamee ground his teeth, resisting the urge to slam an armored fist into the bulkhead. The Honor Guard, as if sensing agitation in the Zealot, came to an even more precise state of attention than before. Arco 'Karnamee stalked past them like a tempest constrained only by the fleshly bonds of his mortal form.
      Whether that storm would be first unleashed on human foes—or on his most dubious 'ally'—remained to be seen.

0132 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar)
UNSC Slipspace Central Scanning Center Leucippus
Sol System, Planet Jupiter, Io (innermost Jovian moon ).

      Vast banks of processing cores hummed like a hive of mildly agitated bees, collectively analyzing millions upon millions of raw data files per second. UNSC Slipspace Scanning Center Leucippus—commonly called 'Io' by those with access to its systems and a penchant for simplification—was fully automated. Its advanced detection hardware, sensor probe deployment network, and signature analysis systems were constantly monitored, controlled and maintained by a UNSC 'dumb' AI. The construct's role was such that it did not merit a name…only a serial number.
      Not that the lack of an affectionate moniker troubled the AI. After all, he performed a very critical task within the vast, branching, data-gathering entities of the UNSC. Namely, the constant monitoring of all Slipspace within ten light years of the entire Sol System.
      Very critical, indeed.
      The construct went about his daily routine, much as he had for the past twenty-one-point-three-five years. A few deviations in array stability caused him to interrupt standard operating diagnostics, but only for a moment. 0139-3 knew his job, and performed it well. So well, in fact, that he had been designated more processing allocation than most 'dumb' AIs ever received. If he were capable of feeling a true sense of satisfaction, the construct suspected this would be the primary reason. While he would never approach the complexity of a 'smart' AI—even one from an older generation—he was far superior to the other 'dumb' AIs utilized by the UNSC.
      Nothing slipped through the ether without passing under his scrutiny. No rogue bodies dragged into Slipspace by natural forces, nor even mere eddies in the flow of the seven non-visible infinitesimal quantum dimensions. He saw them all; catalogued them all. And, when deemed necessary by his programming, reported anomalies to his superiors.
      A flight of sensor probes reappeared in normal space, immediately transmitting their readings from the other side of the looking glass. A contact alert flashed through the system. 0139-3 accessed the corresponding burst transmission cluster, instantly routing the data into his collection of analysis programs. He studied the origination point of the signal from the exact time it had been detected, and—in a mere three-point-six millionths of a second—had determined the stellar coordinates, projected course, and relative velocity of the anomaly.
      Correction: anomalies.
      Several nanoseconds passed as he ran the signatures through his profile comparison algorithms, matching the spectroscopic readings to all known human vessels, natural spatial bodies, and non-human ship types on file. Superfine quantum filaments distorted by the mass readings indicated moving bodies of considerable size, but not of any composition forged by the hands of men. Neither was it lifeless asteroidal rock. No, the Slipspace anomalies hurtling toward Sol's third planet were much more ominous…Covenant propulsion signatures with appropriate mass equivalents.
      Fifteen of them.
      Immediately, 0139-3 triggered his highest coded alert, sending notifications throughout intrasystem COM networks. HIGHCOM received the 'whisper' report first, but critical contact measures of this sort instantly alerted all available defense units. He felt a nearly intangible brush from dozens of AIs, seeking further confirmation or contextual data. They would likely be double-checking him, now…not that such redundancy was necessary.
      After all, 0139-3 had been faithfully doing his job for twenty-one-point-three-five years.
      He was exceedingly efficient at it.

0139 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar)
UNSC Special Warfare Center
Songnam, Kyonggi Province, Korea, Earth.

      Leonidas jerked awake as a thunderous wail pierced the darkness of his quarters. A red light strobed over the door in time with the klaxon, casting an eerie, pulsating glow over the utilitarian compartment. His nanogen augmentations flooded his system with 'runners,' clearing away the fog of sleep and rushing him to full awareness. He was conscious, upright, and armed in under two seconds.
      The M6D pistol under his pillow was always hot loaded with experimental armor piercing rounds from the weapons lab—ammunition he had designed and hand-loaded.
      The 12.7x40mm discarding sabot flechettes exited the muzzle at an extremely high and very stable velocity. The flechette itself—essentially a depleted uranium micro-penetrator—ignited on contact, burning straight through a target's protective plating. He had helped develop the round to more effectively counter Covenant Elite armor, although it remained largely inadequate against shielded targets. That was why the first half of his pistol's magazine was loaded with enhanced SAPHE—Semi-Armor Piercing, High Explosive—rounds.
      Leonidas slapped the COM panel above his bed, weapon still trained on the sealed door.
       "Athena…sitrep." A few pounding heartbeats passed before the AI materialized above his compact holotank, indicating how active she had to be.
       "It's the Covenant. Io picked up a Slipspace whisper six minutes ago."
      Leonidas grimaced. "Force strength and projected course?"
       "Fifteen vessels…thirteen CCS-class Battlecruisers and two larger designs. Mass and spectroscopic data indicate Assault Carriers. They're inbound along the outer Jovian transit route."
       "Damn. How much time do we have?" He was already pulling on his matte black undersuit. The AI hesitated again.
       "Contact in ten minutes, assuming they maintain current course and speed. Captain Kim has just issued a base-wide alert: 'All personnel to combat stations. Officers are ordered to report to the command center immediately.'"
      Leonidas zipped up a combat jumpsuit that completely covered his undersuit. He grunted as he yanked on a combat boot.
       "Does that include me?" he asked lightly, slapping the boot's 'laceplate' closed.
       "Of course not, Captain," Athena replied with a hint of bitter amusement in her voice. "You do not exist." Her image flickered as processing resources were momentarily rerouted. She cocked her head quizzically. "Your orders?"
      Leonidas slammed his foot into the second boot and secured it, then reached for a combat harness and tactical thigh holster hanging from a nearby peg. He clipped both into place, then checked the M6D's chamber and holstered the sidearm in one smooth, well-practiced motion.
       "I appreciate the consideration, but it's Jae's show. Like you said…I don't exist." He stalked toward the hatch and disengaged the lock. He could feel the construct's 'eyes' burning into his back as the metal door slid into the bulkhead.
       "Then why are you wearing your undersuit?" she asked softly.
      Leonidas froze. He half-turned to fix her with a calm eye, scarred face eerily lit from above in the color of fresh blood. Grinned like an alpha wolf long past his prime, though no less dangerous for it. A hungry wolf.
       "Felt a chill."
      Leonidas stepped into the corridor with more energy than he had felt in a long time. It was strange that such ill news would make him feel better. On the other hand, he had wanted a piece of the Covenant for a long, long time. It seemed that fate had played dice with the proper place for their rendezvous, and Earth had lost out.
      The violet-colored light from the construct's holoprojection was suddenly cut off as his door slid shut. He knew that Catherine had taken some liberties with Athena's programming. It was painfully obvious, now that the AI had actually recognized his authority over that of the base commander. Leonidas shook his head. If ONI ever suspected even half of it, Athena would find herself in a very bad place. While he did not want to see that happen, her loyalty might be useful if the defecation hit the oscillation.
      It took several minutes to navigate the corridors of the security wing, where ONI had insisted he be billeted. As he approached the connecting corridor that led to the secondary lifts, two MPs rounded the corner. They spotted him and changed course.
       "Excuse me, sir," the senior of the two said loudly, eyeing his sidearm, "I'm afraid you are not allowed out of the wing. We're under a Code Gamma lockdown." His larger companion, a hulking Private, held out a barring hand. The guard had at least seven inches on him, and was about as broad.
      Leonidas frowned. "Excuse me, soldier…do you know who I am?" He stopped right in front of them, hands clasped at the small of his back, and unleashed his best spine-locking glare. The senior MP—a PFC seven inches shorter than he—gulped audibly.
       "No, sir. We're under orders, sir. It doesn't matter who…."
       "Wrong answer," Leonidas growled, cutting the man off. "I'm nobody." A leg blurred, connecting with the guard's inner thigh. The kick struck the nerve point and compressed the femoral artery, instantly numbing the man's leg from hip to toe and visibly shocking his system. Leonidas held back just enough to avoid lasting damage. After all, they were just doing their job.
      As the guard toppled, his larger companion lunged for the Spartan with a wicked roundhouse punch. He was much faster than he looked.
      But not fast enough.
      Leonidas lazily sidestepped the punch and struck the inside of the man's bicep with his left palm, simultaneously slamming a backhanded blow into the MP's midsection with his right fist. As the man doubled over—seemingly in slow motion—Leonidas planted his left hand on the guard's shoulder blades and used his rigid right arm as a fulcrum. The slight shift in momentum flipped the gasping MP onto his back.
      Leonidas crouched next to the moaning guards and relieved them of their manacles. After handcuffing them back-to-back, shrugging off their comparatively childlike resistance, he held up the electronic key so they could get a good look at it before side-arming it down the long corridor. The key made a faint skittering sound as it bounced on the deck plates at the other end.
       "Sorry. I'm not sitting this one out." Leonidas smiled apologetically, then strode down the connecting corridor at a brisk pace. One of the lifts ahead would drop him three kilometers down—to the command center and its large, circular briefing room. With any luck, the guards below would see only his rank if he wandered in with the other officers. Wolves hunted in packs, after all.
      Infiltrating the briefing proved easier than he had imagined. Rarely did all the ranking project and department leaders gather in one place at the same time. There were simply too many for that to be practical on a regular basis. But they were all present for this briefing, and no wonder. The invasion of Earth had finally come.
       He took a seat at the rear of the chamber. Curvilinear displays stretched along the bulkhead behind him, backlighting his silhouette. The sentry shouted "ten-hut!" and all assembled snapped to attention. Captain Kim strode down the far ramp and took his place at the podium, staring down at the display under his fingertips with a scowl worthy of Pelias. His gaze suddenly lifted, moving across the briefing room with a familiar intensity. It passed over Leonidas without pause. If the officer had spotted him he hadn't shown signs of caring.
      The base commander cleared his throat. "At ease. Please be seated, gentlemen." An aide stepped forward to whisper in Kim's ear. Leonidas' augmented hearing caught part of the man's words…something about Malta and Athens. Orbital MAC platforms. By the increasingly grim look on Kim's face the news had to be anything but good. The Captain nodded to his aide and turned back to the podium.
       "As I'm sure you all know, the Covenant have finally found us. According to the latest report, we've lost two orbital platforms and several ships, including In Fury Born." A ripple of disbelieving mutters ran through the audience. In Fury Born was a Marathon-class cruiser. "We've been ordered to remain at alert status, should the enemy expand their theater of operations. We have also been ordered to prepare for ordnance transfer operations…we will empty the coffers if necessary, gentlemen. Whatever it takes to keep up the pressure on the Covenant landing forces, if and when they punch through our orbital defenses. As the situation stands, that may not be the case."
      Another wave of murmurs, this time slightly more incredulous, swept through the crowd. Leonidas' narrowed his eyes as he studied the tactical display behind and above the podium. Apparently, the Covenant's insertion trajectory had funneled them through the denser portion of the orbitals. Almost as if they had limited intel on their target. In fact, their entire attack formation looked…wrong.
      Another enemy blip in the real-time display faded out. They were losing cruisers at an unusually rapid rate. Humanity had learned the value of quantity at Reach, where the comparatively sparse orbital defense installations had been overwhelmed in an unbelievable short amount of time by the massive Covenant force. This time the enemy was running into a veritable wall of MAC rounds and anti-capital ship bombers armed with armor-piercing tactical nukes and shield-intermittence sensor suites.
      But why? Why would the Covenant deliberately put the majority of their small force at risk to punch through at that point in the defenses? Over the Mediterranean and Africa, for God's sake. Despite humanity's inexorable crawl across the face of the planet, much of the region still remained sparsely populated.
       They aren't exterminating us outright this time. They want something. The realization brought another deranged facet of the Covenant's battle plan into focus; something equally strange. One of the smaller cruisers had sustained a significant amount of damage early on in the attack and now hung back near the Covenant fleet's point-of-origin, behind the spear-like thrust of the other capital ships.
      According to the data scrolling across the primary display, that particular ship was motionless in space and venting atmosphere. Covenant engineers were frantically trying to repair its badly mangled external propulsion systems. Leonidas removed a data pad from the holster on the side of his chair and accessed the raw intel. That ship, designated 'Bogey One-Three,' had not presented its aft section to the MAC platforms at any point during the battle. Neither had UNSC bombers registered a hit to its engineering section—or any section for that matter. Which could only mean one thing.
      A ruse. The Covenant had deliberately positioned the cruiser out of range of the Earth-based defenses and ordered it to hang back like a wounded bull. Relatively immobile, but not without its horns. A ship of that class would have little trouble dealing with moon-based bomber wings, as long as the human capital ships or MAC platforms couldn't get a clear shot at it. And the UNSC heavies were furiously engaged on Earth's doorstep. Literally.
      It was the perfect base for covert ops. Leonidas sucked in a breath. The Covenant weren't just interested in the African subcontinent, as all telemetry predicted. They were keeping an eye on Luna, too. Probably had forces ready to deploy to the largely uninhabited lunar surface—if they hadn't dropped already. But what could they possibly want at either location? The tactics made absolutely no sense, when compared to the Covenant invasion and sterilization procedures humanity had encountered in the past twenty-odd years of all-out war.
      Leonidas frowned. The possibilities troubled him more than the fact that the Covenant had found Earth. That was a comprehensible, albeit horrifying, event in itself. Their unusually passive approach to the annihilation of Earth's populace was far more worrisome. The Spartan pulled open the compartment set into the base of the data pad and spooled out a neural jack and fiber optic cable. He surreptitiously inserted it into his neural interface and accessed the command directory. It didn't take long for the query to reach Athena.
       "What can I do for you?" the construct 'said' calmly. For perhaps the millionth time, Leonidas found himself admiring the AI's ability to perform flawlessly under extreme pressure.
       I have a favor to ask. There is some risk involved.
      The construct snorted. "I expected as much, coming from you. Name it."
      Leonidas suppressed a grin. He was already getting looks from officers on either side—mostly disapproving frowns. Luckily, none of them knew or outranked him, and therefore lacked the constitution or ability to chastise his lack of attention. I need deep access to the Reach invasion files. Correlate all data involving post-attack Covenant operations. And don't bother to tell me that it's classified beyond top secret...I already know about the structure Catherine found beneath CASTLE.
      Athena's image shimmered into being in his mind's eye. For a fleeting moment, Leonidas entertained the panicked thought that she had projected herself into the briefing room. The AI crossed her translucent arms and fixed him with a serious look.
       "You do realize what you're asking, right? Section Zero has those files sealed, locked, firewalled, watched...."
       I know. If you can't do it…don't. I'm not usually willing to explain even this much, but I think the Covenant are after more than just our glassed asses this time.
      He waited several moments as the construct visibly pondered his words. Athena uncrossed her arms and clenched both glowing fists at her sides, eyelids fluttering as she delved through countless layers of ONI archive security. The simple fact that the data caches were under enhanced scrutiny due to the invasion only compounded Leonidas' fears that her presence would be detected. After a few seconds of heart-pounding uncertainty, Athena's eyes sprang open.
       "I've got them…what do you need to know?"
      Leonidas suppressed a sigh of relief. Have there been reports of similar artifacts found anywhere in the solar system? I don't care how outdated.
      Athena closed her eyes again, jerked visibly. "I'm being queried…you've really picked a winner this time. Those files are even stickier than the Reach reports. Good thing I don't have to…" she trailed off, renewing her concentration on the task. Minutes passed with excruciating lethargy as the construct battled hordes of authentication programs and AI sentries. At last her rigid, unmoving posture eased a fraction. Leonidas opened his mouth to ask what she had found when her luminescent spine snapped ramrod straight.
      The construct's eyes opened wide, glowing blue pupils flaring. "I found two archeological sites, both under direct ONI Section Zero supervision. The first is located in the East African Protectorate... it's been in place for almost twenty years. The second is far more recent, discovered less than five years ago. It's on Luna, 106 kilometers southeast of the De Forest impact crater. I can't get much in the way of details on either location without tripping thousands of pitfalls, but I can give you coordinates."
      Leonidas' lips twitched in an affectionate smile. You are amazing. Send them to my pad.
       "Can't. Data transfer will trigger feedback alarms, so pay attention. The Luna dig site is codenamed CAULDRON. Position is seven-niner-point-eight degrees south by one-seven-niner-point-seven degrees east. The site in Africa is…ah…damn! I'm out. They got too close. I'm sorry."
      Leonidas swore under his breath. Never mind that. This is enough for now.
       "What do you want me to do with it?" she asked cautiously.
      He frowned. For now…sit on it. If something happens to me, give it to Kim. I don't know if he'll be able to do anything about it, but HIGHCOM will need the intel…assuming they don't already have it. He reached for the neural jack.
      Athena shook her head. "Trust me…they don't. These files were sealed by none other than Admiral Margaret O. Parangosky. Personally. They haven't been remotely accessed until this moment. Even I had trouble breaking through."
      Leonidas' hand froze halfway to the jack. Parangosky? Suddenly, this makes a helluva lot more sense…and it's worse than I thought. She was supposed to be retired.
      Athena smirked. "And you believed that?"
       "Good. Was there anything else?"
      Leonidas grimaced. I…need to talk to Jae. Things just got a lot more complicated. He frowned in thought, calculating the odds of successfully convincing Kim to let him act on a mere hunch. Not good. I want you to prep a Longsword, and do it quietly. Use tech drones, if possible. Also…clear a path to the armories for me. I may have to pick up a few things. Athena nodded, vanishing from sight as he unclipped the neural jack from his interface port.
      Kim was just finishing up his speech. A stream of orders for each department followed before he dismissed the assembled officers. Leonidas lithely avoided the stream of departing personnel and jogged down the corridor that circled the briefing room. He permitted himself a brief moment of true speed to get to the opposite hatch before Kim could step through it.
      The bulkheads blurred slightly as his legs pumped like twin pistons, propelling him down the curved hall so fast it took even his augmented vision a moment to catch up. That, or his nanogen enhancements had begun to fail at an even greater rate than Kim feared. Leonidas forced the thought from his mind as he skidded to a halt and stood at attention. The hatch slid open, and Kim emerged with a data pad in hand, a dark look entrenched on his face, and a flock of aides trailing behind. Kim caught sight of the Spartan almost immediately, grimaced, and turned to the junior officers.
       "That'll be all for now, gentlemen. I need a moment." Kim's grimace turned into an impressive scowl that sent the aides running for cover. The captain turned on his heel and waited for the hatch to slide shut before speaking. "What in the seven circles of hell were you thinking, coming down here? ONI is going crazy…especially since you took out their watchdogs just to make it this far. What in God's name could be so damned important that it couldn't wait for me to…."
       "I know what the Covenant want," Leonidas stated calmly. Kim's mouth snapped shut faster than a bear trap, and almost twice as loud.
      "That is a little hard to believe, Richard. The invasion's not an hour old and you expect me to…wait." His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Athena helped you, didn't she?"
      Leonidas gave him a blank look. The base commander threw up his hands in exasperation.
      "I knew it. If they find out what you've been up to they'll put you back in that cage and delete the access codes…and Athena. Do you have any idea what these risks could do to the both of you?"
       Leonidas put up a placating hand. "Please, Captain. Give me a chance to explain. This isn't some half-baked theory I cooked up in my sleep. I've got hard…evidence." He handed Kim the data pad, with the coordinates entered under the archeological site's codename. "I'm not screwing around, here."
      Kim frowned. "'CAULDRON'? What the hell is that? And where is this location? I hope you're not planning on…."
       "It's a dig site, Jae! Damn it all…will you ever learn to trust me? This is one of Parangosky's little cover ups, and it's on Luna. The damn Moon, Jae. It's Forerunner technology, or artifacts. Something. Just like Reach…and don't tell me you don't know about the shit Catherine's Spartan-IIs found under CASTLE, because I pried that tidbit from your desk files." The naval officer opened his mouth to respond, but the Spartan denied him the chance. "This is what the Covenant are after, sir, or else they would've sent more ships and slagged the whole planet by now. There's another site in Africa—right where they're concentrating the bulk of their forces—but I couldn't get anything on that." He crossed his arms and turned his face to stone, expecting an angry tirade at the very least. Instead there was silence. Leonidas glanced over to find Kim studying him thoughtfully. All trace of anger had fled the base commander's face.
      For the moment.
       "What do you want, Richard? Are you asking for my permission to…investigate? You know I don't have that authority. God…I don't even know who does!"
      Leonidas' granite mask cracked in a mirthless smile.
      Kim's eyebrows shot skyward as his head started panning from side-to-side. "Oh no…you're not getting me to ask her. Hell no. There's no way she'll let you go, and even if she would…there's no way you'd get through to Luna alive. It's a war zone up there, in case you've forgotten. Besides…she's retired."
      "Uh-huh," Leonidas retorted. "And I'm a Buddhist monk." He took a step forward, bristling. "I'm not asking you to ask her. I'm asking you to…look the other way. You know I wouldn't even think of considering this if I didn't believe it absolutely necessary. Tell me I lie."
       Kim chewed his bottom lip, his eyes flitting back and forth between the data pad and Leonidas' intense gaze. The naval officer cracked the knuckles of his left hand nervously and let out a frustrated half-snarl. He slapped the data pad against the Spartan's rock-hard abdomen.
       "I hope you aren't thinking of going by yourself, you crazy bastard. In your condition you are no match for what the Covenant will throw at you. You know that, right?" Leonidas opened his mouth to reply, but Kim drove on relentlessly. "Of course you don't! I must be a moron, thinking that your brain functions remotely like a normal person's. God…if I had nanomachines crawling through my body I'd probably be twice as nuts." The base commander stalked down the corridor, muttering all the way. "You are nuts, by-the-way. Insane. Stupid and insane." Then, just as Leonidas started to reply: "Shut it." Kim tossed one final glare over his shoulder. "I hope you've made out your bloody will!" he growled, followed by a string of phrases that were both long and artfully obscene in at least two languages.
      Leonidas closed his gaping mouth, swallowed like a first-year recruit, and wiped a few beads of sweat from his brow. A COM unit set into the nearby bulkhead squawked.
      "Glad to hear that went well. I hope you're ready to practice what you preach." Athena's voice almost dripped with sarcasm. In fact, it did drip with sarcasm.
      Leonidas grinned—a predatory grin. "That was the hard part, my dear. Everything's downhill from here."
      "Riiight. And I'm a Luddite."


First cycle, 40 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Aboard Phantom dropship Blood Glyph,
en route to lunar surface.

      Arco 'Karnamee checked the seal on the left gauntlet of his Assault Harness. The silver-inlayed, midnight black armor was a gratifying substitute for his elaborate off-duty gear. While 'Karnamee was proud of his status as a Zealot, he belonged in the armor of a soldier. The simpler, less ornate, infinitely more practical armor of a proper Dn'end Legion warrior. His status display scrolled through a systems check, then tapped into the armor of all his warriors, aboard three other dropships like his own.
       'Karnamee methodically examined each suit's diagnostics report. He would have no one under his command die an ignominious death at the hands of hard vacuum. Should the dropship be hit by enemy fire, or crash, or suffer a critical systems failure, none of his Sangheili would perish by asphyxiation or exposure. And that equated to a fighting chance—all a good warrior could ask for, besides a clean death at the hands of an honorable opponent.
      The Zealot-cum-Special Operations Commander glanced at the dropship's most unwelcome occupant: the Jiralhanae Ossoona, Bracktanus. The Brute had been outfitted with a prototype version of the Assault Harness, tailored for his outsized anatomy. It closely resembled the powered armor the Prophets had begun distributing among their pet security battalions. This variant, 'Karnamee noted with barely suppressed disgust, was unique. It was of the same midnight black coloration as the other Spec Ops soldiers' armor, yet featured subtle platinum inlays and an enhanced level of environmental protection.
       A mere Ossoona, indeed, 'Karnamee thought darkly. The level of honor shown to the Jiralhanae in recent memory was becoming more and more offensive. He reminded himself to be wary of the hulking warrior. Bracktanus would have few qualms about challenging his authority, if presented with the opportunity. Not that 'Karnamee's warriors would submit to the Brute, but that did not make the Ossoona any less of a threat. Especially clad as he was in the prototype armor, the capabilities of which 'Karnamee knew very little.
       Blood Glyph's pilot toggled a warning tone, alerting the troops to prepare for insertion. The hum of the small gravity lift activating died as the chamber was slowly pumped free of air. A precaution, in case of the aforementioned hull breach. 'Karnamee glanced around the troop bay, studying his warriors intently. He toggled a remote visual from the third Phantom, and was gratified to see his second-in-command, Sub-Commander V'ro Undakree, doing much the same. They had been together a long time. Countless units, cycles and successions. In truth, it felt like they had known each other for an age, since that first chance meeting in the Legion's warrior crèche. Undakree acknowledged the visual link and clicked his mandibles over their private communications channel, openly expressing his disapproval of 'Karnamee's 'guest.'
      "I don't like it, Commander. The Brute smells of death instead of blood."
       'Karnamee grunted. "That is true. Unfortunately, the decision was not mine to make, and we must abide by the will of the Hierarch. I will hear nothing further on the subject unless he threatens the mission. That you will report without hesitation."
      "Gladly, sir," Undakree acknowledged with a very slight shift of his upper mandibles. No doubt the thought of catching the Brute in an act of treachery pleased him greatly. 'Karnamee doubted such an opportunity would be so simple—or so obvious, for that matter.
      The deck plates vibrated slightly as the pilot transitioned to active camouflage mode. The enhancement was a new development, and only effective in low particle environments. Active camouflage on such a scale did not fare well when heavily bombarded with things like airborne dust or micrometeoroids. Fortunately, this planet's moon possessed the type of atmosphere the stealth variant was most suited for. Lifeless.
      The camouflage system—in addition to a non-reflective, matte black hull finish—would render the quartet of insertion craft virtually undetectable. Fortunately the engineers had been able to limit the dropships' infrared signatures as well, or the human defenders would certainly attempt to blow them out of the sky. 'Karnamee felt compelled to offer the species his grudging respect, out of long experience on the battlefield. The humans had proven to be more intelligent and resilient than most Covenant warriors allowed themselves to believe. At this point he could only hope the stealth technology would get his troops to ground intact.
      The Phantoms, now little more than transparent blurs against the starfield, entered the moon's extremely weak gravity field. They plummeted toward the surface, minus the usual cherry red glow of atmospheric friction, and angled toward the landing zone. Their target was located somewhere within a ten-unit radius, but 'Karnamee expected a large degree of deviation between what his intel described and what the terrain actually looked like. After all, the ancient texts were…ancient. Certainly the surface features of the satellite would have changed over the intervening millennia.
      Blood Glyph's pilot kicked in the antigravity drives earlier than usual, counting on the minimal gravity to offer them little resistance. By using antigrav instead of retrothrusters, the dropships would maintain their unbelievably low thermal hoofprint. As the cloaked Phantom gently dropped toward the rugged, monochromatic surface, 'Karnamee toggled his command channel.
      "Be fierce in the face of death. Meet her head-on…grinning, with your blade high. This is a warrior's rightful end." He toggled his Assault Harness's active camouflage as his soldiers repeated his words in hushed, rumbling tones. Almost mournful, yet without a trace of fear, apprehension or sadness. The apparent contradiction was not lost on 'Karnamee. So much of his life seemed just that: a contradiction.
      His warriors toggled their own stealth systems, and 'Karnamee found himself unsurprised that the Jiralhanae Ossoona possessed his own variation of the technology. While the Brute's locator icon still appeared in the Commander's display, the superiority of Bracktanus' active camouflage was clearly evident.
      Wonders never cease, 'Karnamee thought wryly. He tapped several final commands into his tablet, queuing private messages for his clan and Legion should he fail to return alive. It was generally considered very back luck to do so prior to a mission, but he could not help but feel a sense of foreboding about the Hierarch's personal quest for glory and…'transcendence.' 'Karnamee would rather record the words he felt necessary and suffer embarrassment later—should they be read in vain—than fail to say them at all.
      The blue light swirling through the overhead shifted to bloody lavender, and 'Karnamee activated the side hatches and gravity lift. Invisible Sangheili operators plummeted to the powdery white surface of the moon below. 'Karnamee depressed another switch, and two modified ghosts dropped from the undercarriage of each Phantom. The vehicles had been altered to accept the same active camouflage as the dropships.
Unfortunately, due to high power requirements, the weapons systems had been removed. The ghost riders would serve only as advance scouts for the strike force, and passive ones at that. 'Karnamee had lamented the fact that they could not realistically insert enough of the craft to move as an entirely mobile unit, despite the fact that the low gravity almost guaranteed a good pace across the lunar terrain and the objective was near.
      Or so he hoped.
      'Karnamee stepped into the glowing field of the small gravity lift and left the oppressive confines of the dropship. He had always hated being cooped up during insertion, unable to see the battlefield with his own eyes, nor bring a weapon to bear in self defense. But now he was on the ground. In his element. This feeling reminded him of why he had chosen to become a warrior, rather than a councilor or cleric. This feeling kept Arco 'Karnamee alive.

0221 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar)
UNSC Special Warfare Center
Songnam, Kyonggi Province, Korea, Earth.

      Maria forced herself to breathe evenly as she strode down the armored corridor that led to the Center's most secure armory and weapons lab. Jackson and Oboe, her colorful ONI 'escorts,' trailed in her agitated wake, having returned from what was supposed to be a relaxing leave in Songnam shortly after the news came in. Very shortly. Oboe was still grumbling.
      "Damn Covenant always have to show up just when I'm about to get laid. Alien bastards prob'ly don't even have a concept of timing, much less of having your…."
      "Shut up," Jackson said mildly. "You were getting bored, and you know it." Oboe opened his mouth to object, but Jackson continued, smothering whatever angry retort the bald man had been forming. "Don't even bother lying to me. Everybody knows you enjoy combat more than sex."
      Maria allowed herself a small smile at the exchange. More amusement stemmed from Oboe's obscenely dull spluttering than Jackson's sharp wit. Wit she was familiar with, but such grand exasperation surely came only once or twice in a lifetime.
      The armed ODSTs standing guard at the armory's massive hatch went rigid as she approached, weapons training on her face. Jackson smiled wanly at the guards as Maria drew herself to attention.
      She scanned her ID into the pedestal-like control panel, never taking her eyes off the guards' new BR55HB-SR Battle Rifles. "Petty Officer Second Class Maria Abrams, reporting as ordered," she said loudly, watching as the senior of the two tapped a confirmation order into his own identical control panel. The Marine somehow managed to keep one eye on the trio while simultaneously checking her access codes. At last he grunted, keying the door code with an ease borne of long familiarity. The colossal hatch parted down the center, receding into the meter-thick bulkheads with surprisingly little noise for something so huge. Maria did a double take when she saw who stood on the far side—and how tall he suddenly was.
      "Good morning, Petty Officer," the mysterious Marine captain said with a warm smile. "I apologize for all the cloak and dagger bullshit, but we're very short on time and Misdirection is in the driver's seat at the moment." He fixed the ONI operatives with a suddenly cold glance. "I see they've started leashing you already. Not a good sign…believe me."
      Maria forced herself not to gape at the man, with no small effort. The Captain wore a suit of charcoal-gray MJOLNIR armor that elevated his height to nearly her own. Perhaps an inch less, at most. Even more surprisingly, it was a version of the Mark VI she had not yet seen.
      The armor seemed to be a combination of older Mark V and completely unfamiliar Mark VI components. The chest and shoulder pieces, in particular, were far more angular than those of the armor she had tested for John-117, as was the helmet that sat in the crook of the Captain's arm.
      Moreover, the surface of the armor had a peculiar, nonreflective smoothness that was almost fluid in its appearance. The dull, translucent, liquid-looking membrane made it seem as though the armor were suffering a fatal lubricant leak. Oboe resumed his subsonic tirade as Maria gave herself a mental shake and snapped to attention with a crisp salute.
      "Permission to speak freely, sir?" she asked before the Captain had a chance to respond in kind.
      The man's warm smile reappeared as he returned the salute. "At ease, Petty Officer…permission granted."
      "What in the hell is going on? I…" her words stalled as he raised an armored hand.
      "Hold on a moment…I think we had better discuss this in private." The Captain's gaze flitted to her ONI escorts, still standing just outside the hatchway. Maria half-turned at another wave of sputtered profanity from Oboe. Jackson shook his head.
      "No can do, Captain Leonidas. We're under strict orders from Zero. The Petty Officer is not to be left unattended at any time, regardless of the circumstances." He started to move forward, then stopped dead in his tracks when the two ODSTs twitched their rifles in his direction. Instead, the ONI operative pulled a datapad out of a side pocket and tossed it to the Captain.
      Maria turned back to fix the man with a hard, questioning stare. "Leonidas? Is that your name…sir?" she silently reprimanded herself for almost letting protocol slide. The Marine Captain's informal way of dealing with subordinates was strangely infectious. Surprisingly, the man called Leonidas seemed to take note of the near slip-up, and smiled even broader. Maria could not remember meeting a more unorthodox officer in her entire life.
      Leonidas remained silent as he glanced over Jackson's orders, then fixed a still-muttering Oboe with one of his poignant glances. "You wouldn't happen to have your own copy of these…would you, son?"
      Oboe's spine stiffened into a more respectful stance of attention as his grumbling ceased. "No, sir."
      "Excellent," Leonidas said mildly, crushing the datapad in his fist like an empty beer can made of tissue paper. Sparks accompanied a sickening crunch as the device's display shattered. To his credit, Jackson's jaw dropped only a millimeter or so at the blatant disregard for ONI authority. Oboe just renewed his spluttering, this time even more impressively than before.
      "Damn," Leonidas continued, "I'm sorry about that…gotta be the fifth one today." He grinned and flexed his armored hand experimentally, shards of plastic and metal trickling free. "Involuntary muscle spasm, or something. I guess I'm just getting old."
      Maria could not help but compare the man's expression to that of a Cheshire cat with a tiger's disposition. She stepped into the armory and cast a warning glance of her own over her shoulder. The two ONI operatives hadn't budged, realizing their umbrella of protection had evaporated quite suddenly in the face of twin rifle bores.
      "This will only take a moment," she told them reassuringly. "Tell them I was stricken with a temporarily acute case of insubordination."
      Leonidas triggered the blast doors and gestured for her to follow him deeper into the armory. They passed racks of small arms and larger lockers for anti-armor weapon systems. Another hatch was set into the far bulkhead, this one about half as broad as the first, though no less impressive. The words 'LAB A12: ACCESS RESTRICTED' were stenciled on the bulkhead above in big yellow letters.
      Maria cleared her throat. "Sir…I would very much appreciate an explanation."
      Leonidas keyed a code into the second hatch's access panel and the huge door parted, then turned and fixed her with a knowing look. "I understand your family is on Luna."
      Maria stiffened. "You seem to know an awful lot about me, sir." Damn the torpedoes."You have me at a disadvantage."
      "That I do, Petty Officer. I apologize." He offered her his hand. "Captain Richard Brade, United Nations Space Command Marine Corps. That's highly classified, so I don't suggest spreading it around."
      Others might have hesitated to accept the handshake after seeing one of the man's 'muscle spasms,' but Maria had grown up with Spartan-IIs. She was not only incredibly strong herself, but well accustomed to the rigors of managing such strength. Leonidas' little display had been anything but involuntary.
      "I appreciate the introduction, Captain, but with all due respect it means very little to me."
      Leonidas sighed. "That's to be expected. For all intents and purposes…I do not exist. At least, not as who I really am." He turned and entered the weapons lab, his bootsteps heavy on the scuffed metal deck. "For simplicity's sake…I'm a Spartan, Petty Officer. But not like you. Not exactly."
      Maria followed him inside, the pieces falling into place in her mind. How could she have missed it? All the little peculiarities from the day before became suddenly clear, and she cursed herself for overlooking the obvious. The slip was uncharacteristic, and potentially lethal under other circumstances.
      "A Spartan," she repeated experimentally as she examined the inner lab. The less cavernous space was dominated by diagnostic units and storage cases stacked two meters high. Workbenches with loose components lined the walls, and a space had been cleared at the center of the chamber. A modular equipment rack had been set up there, and another suit of MJOLNIR armor hung from it—this one custom fit to the larger stature of a Spartan-II. Leonidas—Brade, or whatever his name was—strode up to the armor and plugged a datapad into one of its access ports.
      "For one thing," he said with a grin. "I don' t exist…as I said before. And that leads right to the source of the Spartan program as you know it." He gestured up at the armor, almost identical in coloration to his own. "This is yours, by the way."
       "Mine, sir?" Maria asked, running her hand over the smooth chest plates. The suit was a more standardized permutation, with one obvious exception: enhanced environmental protection.
      Leonidas nodded. "I need your help, Maria."
      "My help? For what, may I ask?"
      "An op. Unsanctioned, virtually unsupported, and dangerous as all hell. In fact, we probably won't survive." He chuckled. "Just the kind of thing you Spartan-IIs are known for tackling single-handed."
      Maria frowned. "That's awfully vague, Captain. I'm not suicidal, regardless of what you've heard about us. Like you said…I have a family, now. And, technically, I'm retired."
      Leonidas snorted. "I've heard that before. People like us never retire…not until we're dead or they think we're no longer useful."
      Maria grimaced. She didn't want to believe the man, but suspected his statement was true. It was something she had long dreaded. In a strange way, she believed the Marine was telling her the truth. Something about his eyes communicated an openness that she rarely encountered. An honesty that assuaged her doubts, if only a little.
      "The mission?" she asked calmly. "At least give me that much."
      A hesitant look crossed the man's scarred features. "I can't. Not until I know where you stand." He paused, as if choosing his words carefully. "I can tell you that this mission may be your only chance to be near your family before this nightmare ends, one way or another. I regret saying such a thing, but it's the truth."
      Maria pursed her lips angrily. "Luna. The op's on the Moon, isn't it?"
      Leonidas nodded apologetically. "I know this is a difficult choice, and make no mistake…we'll be off the grid. Completely. I don't even want to think about my court martial, assuming I live to see it." He sighed. "Please understand…I firmly believe that every human life on Luna is at risk. You can either brave treason with me and step between the Covenant and your family, or sit around here and wait for HIGHCOM to change your status and ship you off to some hotspot. Trust me on this."
      Maria grimaced. "Trust you, sir? I've just met you, and I already have a lot more questions than answers." She mulled over the options and silently cursed both. The phrase 'caught between a rock and a hard place' failed to do justice to the current situation.
      In the end, there was only one real choice, though she realized that the decision had already been made—back when she left active duty to raise a family. The dice had been thrown. Now she was just waiting to see how they landed.
       "How do you expect to get us off planet without ONI stepping in?" she asked, lifting the helmet of her new armor free from its place on the gear rack. Leonidas' weathered face cracked in that strangely compelling grin as a column of violet light shimmered into existence above a nearby holotank. Athena crossed her arms and fixed Maria with an intense stare.


In Death's Grey Land -- Section III
Date: 20 February 2008, 3:32 am

"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

18 February 2008

"Soldiers are citizens of death's grey
Drawing no dividend from time's

- Siegfried Sassoon



1620 hours, 18 March 2496 (Military Calendar) /
Arlington National Cemetery, District of Columbia,
United States, United Republic of North America, Earth.

      A slate March sky raised its floodgates, pouring rain down in sheets on the pale Yule marble of the Tomb of the Unknowns. Only the tears on Catherine Halsey's cheeks outmatched its ceaseless torrent. A numbing gust of wind whipped across the open ground, prompting the ten-year-old to pull her black coat tightly around her slender form. She cast a bitter glance back in the direction of her father's grave, where her mother was no doubt accepting tearful condolences from mourners. The few that had bothered to attend, at least.
      Catherine had wandered away from the somber throng at the first opportunity, slowly climbing the hill that overlooked Washington's impressive skyline. She was sick of sympathy, and twice as sick of crying. A knot of grief lay in her stomach like a souring meal, only immeasurably worse. It had not diminished in the weeks since the news came in, and only increased after her father's casket arrived from deep space.
      She had not been to Earth since she was a young child, but her parents had been born here. Met here. Started their family here. They had moved to Reach shortly before her birth, because of Father's job. Catherine didn't understand why he was being buried here. This wasn't home, and she wouldn't be able to visit very often, if at all. It didn't make sense, and that only angered her more. She clenched her fists tightly inside her sleeves until her fingernails drew blood. A sob wracked her body, and she felt her knees begin to wobble.
      The patter of the rain ceased abruptly, and Catherine sensed someone standing behind her. She turned, bottom lip quivering, and looked up at a uniformed man holding an umbrella over their heads. She studied the fine scars that crisscrossed his weathered face and felt herself recoil. Then recognition dawned, mingling with an old memory that surged to the forefront of her keen mind.
      "I know you," she said softly, wiping her nose with a rain-soaked sleeve. "I remember…you came to visit my father a lot. When I was little."
      The man nodded. "Good memory, Miss Halsey." He extended a large, white-gloved hand. "Captain Richard Brade. I served...worked...with your father." His iron mask of a face cracked, revealing a small, comforting smile.
      Catherine responded in kind, realizing that his outward expressions of deference were different than the rest of the condolences she had received. More honest, in a way that she couldn't fully understand. More personal. Her own delicate hand nearly disappeared in the gentle grasp of that massive white glove.
      "I remember that, too. Mother asked him about you, once."
      "Oh?" he said mildly.
      "They didn't know I was listening. Father really admired you…said you were very important to his project. And a good friend, I think." She cocked her head. "He would be happy to know you came."
      Brade nodded again. "I hope so." A pained look twitched across his face, then vanished. "I was with him when...he died." The marine knelt in front of her, cool gray eyes boring into her own. She thought she saw a haunted look flicker behind the soldier's unnervingly calm gaze. "He was thinking of you. Told me how smart you were, and how proud he was to have you as his daughter. He loved you very much…but I'm sure you know that."
      Catherine choked back another sob. "Yes. I just wish…." She felt tears welling up in her eyes again and moved to brush them away with her hopelessly soaked sleeve. Brade hurriedly offered her a clean, mercifully dry handkerchief instead.
      "He knew," Brade said firmly, reassuringly. He reached back into his pocket. "Marcus wanted me to give you something," the hand withdrew, and he opened it slowly. Catherine sucked in a breath as she recognized the gold locket she had given her father before he left. Her favorite picture of the two of them was inside; her mother had taken it last year, at Christmas. She had been heartbroken when it hadn't arrived with his things.
      She took the locket from Brade's outstretched palm. It was shinier than she remembered, as if someone had scrubbed it furiously with metal polish. The mechanism opened stiffly, like a wounded animal cautiously rising to its feet, and Catherine choked back another sob when she saw that the picture was still inside. Then she noticed that it concealed something—a small, rectangular object tucked behind the image.
      "What is it?" she whispered softly, looking the marine directly in the eye.
      "Everything," Brade replied, his voice equally hushed. "I'm sure you'll understand, someday." He winked. "Keep it safe, and don't tell anyone. Not even your mother."
      "I won't," she promised. She hugged him fiercely, imagining for a moment that it was her father's hand patting her comfortingly on the back. "Thank you!"
       Brade straightened, then flashed a lopsided grin. "Let's get you back to your mom." He held the dripping umbrella over her head as they walked, letting the rain wash down the left side of his plastic-wrapped white dress cap and onto the shoulder of his gray trenchcoat. He didn't seem to mind, like the cold deluge was just another familiar part of life—a part of him.
      They walked in silence down the slick concrete path, toward the newer sections of the cemetery. Catherine hadn't known that her father had served in the military when he was a young man, qualifying him to be buried here. She had never imagined him as a soldier. By striking comparison, the tall officer walking next to her seemed more like a soldier than any of the similarly dressed men she had met at the funeral.
      It took longer than expected to get back to the grave site. The two cemetery workers were preparing to lower the sealed metal casket, and her mother's grief-stricken face melted into a look of pure relief when she spotted her daughter. Catherine had not realized just how far she had wandered, or how long she had been gone. It must have been quite a while, to elicit such a response. She clutched the locket tightly, wondering what her father had given her; what this unusual man had traveled so far to deliver, personally.
      Her mother let out a small cry and embraced her fiercely. Desperately. "Where have you been, Catherine? They sent Corporal James out to look for you half an hour ago."
      Catherine smiled up at Brade. "I was just walking, Mother. Captain Brade found me up on the hill and offered to bring me back."
      Andrea Halsey fixed Brade with a grateful, if wooden, smile. "Thank you, Captain."
      Brade nodded seriously. "It was nothing, Ma'am." He cast an approving glance down at Catherine. "She is a remarkable young lady. Her father's daughter."
      "Yes," the woman looked down at Catherine sadly. "She is." She gazed up at him with a hint of recognition in her eyes. "You worked with Marcus? I think we've met before."
      "We have, Ma'am. Your husband was one of the finest men I've ever known. I'm very sorry for your loss."
      "Thank you," she said demurely. "We have to go, Catherine. Everyone is waiting."
      Catherine nodded grimly. "Okay." She looked up at Brade, fixing his craggy features in her mind's eye. "Thank you."
      "You are very welcome," he replied, smiling down at her reassuringly as her mother took her by the hand and led her away.


      Brade watched them go, scanning the surrounding tombstones for threats until they got into a black ground car. Only after the vehicle had disappeared into the mist did he turn back to the UNSC-issue casket—'Body bullets' they were called, in the Corps. The two workers nodded to him as he approached, stepping to the side to give him a moment alone. They lit up each other's cigarettes, talking quietly as they waited. There was a strange understanding between soldiers and gravediggers. A mutual sort of respect, and the shared, morbid knowledge that as long as one existed there would be a place in the world for the other.
      Brade drew himself slowly to attention, each artificial muscle fiber contracting in perfect unison until his limbs were locked as rigidly as one of the cemetery's marble statues. If the workers noticed the inhuman precision of his movements, they gave no sign. As he saluted, Brade struggled to maintain an emotionless mask of imperturbability. Failed. The wave of emotions he'd been riding over the past month crested in that moment. His dreams, unrepressed despite the long stretch of cryo-sleep, had pursued him relentlessly. The moment of Marcus Halsey's death haunted him still, as well as the knowledge that there had been nothing he could do to save him. Nothing.
      That thought was the cruelest torture of all.
      A combat boot pressed wet grass to earth, squirting water out between the gaps in its rugged sole. Leonidas' enhanced hearing immediately pinpointed the direction of the sound. His mind began to estimate distance, posture, and the weight of the wearer. His body, instinct and training screamed for him to react to the intrusion. Counter it.
      Brade suppressed the urge to go to ground and crawl for cover, instead remaining rigidly at attention, eyes scanning the cemetery for movement. More sounds whispered in the rain: additional boots squelching in the mud, the creak of a tactical harness, the metallic clack of multiple charging handles traveling backward and forward.
      He was surrounded.
      Lighter steps approached from behind, indicating a smaller frame than the special forces operators advancing on his position. His nose twitched as nanogen receptors sent information to the corresponding interface nodules in his brain, translating signals to sensory data. Data to thoughts. Thoughts triggered memories.
      "Rear Admiral Parangosky," he stated emotionlessly. The sound of approaching footsteps ceased.
      "Captain Brade," Parangosky's harsh voice replied, equally devoid of expression. "I expected you would show up at some point. Others…were not so sure. But then, I always knew how close the two of you were." She walked around him, hands behind her back, eyes on the ground. "Halsey didn't strike me as the type to keep a pet, yet here you are." Her cold eyes bored into his like flint spear points.
      Brade bristled. "He was my friend. Ma'am."
      "Ah. Your friend. The man who put you through all that pain and agony…killed your fellow volunteers on the operating table? The man who's technical negligence resulted in the failure of your program? He was your friend?" Parangosky's circuitous route terminated right in front of him. She squared off, fixing him with an inquisitor's glare.
      "Yes, Ma'am," Brade stated firmly. If she thought she could shake him with her legendary gift for intimidation, she was in for one hell of a surprise. The spec ops soldiers finally emerged from the surrounding sea of marble and soaked grass. They moved like professionals—like wraiths, weapons trained unerringly on his head. Aim for the brainstem, drop 'im quick. Brade smirked.
      "You seem to think this is a joke, Captain," Parangosky observed. "Personally, I don't find it funny. Not one damn bit." She took out a data pad and made a point of scanning the display. She held up the screen so he could read its contents. "You broke an awful lot of regs getting here, not to mention civilian transit laws...even after you were confined to quarters pending your debriefing. I find that strange."
      "How so, Ma'am?" Brade asked coldly.
      "Don't play games with me, Captain," she growled. "Why did you come here? Why did you put your career and future at risk to attend a damn funeral?"
      Brade looked down at her as an eagle might deign to regard a mere hawk. The damp, chill air almost crackled with the intensity of their contesting wills. His eyes narrowed as the words formed in his mind and fell solemnly from his lips.
      "I honor the dead, Admiral. You tally them."
      Parangosky's face contorted in anger. She stepped back, toward the casket, and growled:
      "Take him."

0246 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Special Warfare Center
Songnam, Kyonggi Province, Korea, Earth.

      Leonidas frowned as he strode through the armory's outer hatch, Maria following closely in his wake. Now similarly armed and armored, she stood several inches taller than the older Spartan, though a bit more slender. Each carried a large rucksack loaded with objects of varying shape and purpose, though the stern guards didn't seem to notice. Leonidas scanned the corridor suspiciously; the ONI spooks were nowhere to be found.
      "Private?" he asked tersely, "Where are our would-be dog walkers?"
      The senior guard took a step forward and grunted. "They took off, Captain. At first I thought they were gonna try to get in, but Ibañez and I…ah…dissuaded them." The marine grinned, communicating how much he had enjoyed one-upping the ONI operatives. They were more often a thorn in the average grunt's side than anything else, and the shroud of fear and secrecy that clung to spooks like cobwebs had instigated a near-universal resentment of their seemingly untouchable status.
      Leonidas turned, flashing a knowing grin of his own. "Well done, Private. If you're questioned regarding this matter, I am ordering you to pass the buck without hesitation…is that understood?"
      "Perfectly, sir." The marine replied, snapping to attention with a crisp salute. "Good hunting, Captain."
      Leonidas returned the salute smartly and glanced pointedly at Maria before continuing down the empty corridor, the combined bootfalls of their half-ton armor echoing loudly in the confined space. Athena's voice crackled to life in his helmet speakers:
      "I've got a lock on them. They're in Kim's office."
      Leonidas nodded to himself, toggling his COM. "Why am I not surprised…I assume Kim is in there with them?"
      "Yes. Now he is." Athena's response contained tension he had not often heard.
      "Let me guess, they made a few calls before Kim got back?" he asked flatly.
      Athena hesitated. "One outbound COM transmission. Accessing." She paused for a few heartbeats. "I…can't break the encryption. It's like there's some kind of active, localized protection of the residual code…ongoing firewalls with some serious adaptive complexity. In fact, it reminds me of a…" her voice trailed off.
      Leonidas' eyes swept the corridor again as they neared a T-junction, alert for any kind of ambush, however unlikely the possibility seemed. "Reminds you of a what?" he asked softly, checking behind them. The chance of being flanked was even more remote, since the corridor terminated in the single armory access point, with no connecting halls between it and the intersection.
      Athena growled suddenly, the unfamiliar sound catching the Spartan by surprise. "It reminds me of a smart AI. This is exactly what I would do to keep a COM transmission inaccessible to other constructs."
      "Are you saying ONI planted another AI here…just to keep tabs on a Spartan? That seems a little extreme, even for Section Zero. They've got to be running short on assets by now."
      "I agree…and I would have picked up on such a presence by now. It must be a recent infiltration. I'll look into it and keep you informed." She closed the COM channel.
      Leonidas instinctively moved to the left bulkhead, Maria mirroring him on the right. They advanced to the intersection in unison, using quick peeks to check both directions for hostiles.
      All clear.
      Leonidas glanced at Maria as he turned left, heading for the tracked access lifts that angled steeply toward the surface. "We should be clear all the way to the landing pad. Athena has overwatch, and Kim should cover our asses for the time being." He tried to keep the worry out of his voice. Apparently, it was an exercise in futility.
      "Something's wrong," Maria said. It was not a question.
      "Maybe," Leonidas replied mildly. "Your two buddies from ONI got into Kim's office and set up some kind of super-encrypted transmission with the help of another smart AI. Athena's checking it out now."
      Maria grunted. "They're probably checking in, since your little 'accident' likely destroyed their only secure remote COM access." She paused, mental wheels almost audibly turning. "Kim has a hard-line to HIGHCOM in there. If they really do have a smart AI helping them, tapping into that link would be easy." She hesitated. "What do you think the response will be?"
      Leonidas fixed her with a short stare as they approached the nearest access lift. He wordlessly yanked open the wire mesh cage gate.
      "That bad, huh?" she muttered, ducking under the cage's low metal lintel. Leonidas followed suit, closing the gate behind him as he slapped the lift's controls with his other hand. A little roughly, he grudgingly admitted to himself. The lift hadn't done anything wrong…yet.
      "We'll make it," he stated calmly as they began to pick up speed. For a fleeting moment he wished he could feel the cool wind on his face.
      Maria cocked her head. "You don't really expect her to give up that easily, do you? Assuming she's as deep into this as you seem to think."
      "I don't 'think'…I know. Parangosky's been pulling strings since before you were born, and spinning more than enough silk of her own since. Trust me…you don't want to get caught in one of that woman's webs. Ever." He grimaced.
      "Isn't that what we're walking into right now?" Maria asked sharply. Probably a lot more sharply than she would've addressed another officer, Leonidas realized. She was beginning to genuinely trust him.
      "Not if I can help it, Petty Officer. I've played the fly once before, and I don't plan on a second performance." The car shuddered slightly as its brakes kicked in. Leonidas looked upward at the rapidly approaching platform, his enhanced vision working in tandem with his armor's HUD optics to search for any waiting guards. There were none in sight. They came to a grinding halt and the final set of air brakes beneath the floor of the cage engaged with an audible hiss. Leonidas' hand was already on the butt of his pistol, and Maria had her battle rifle unslung with its recoil pad held lightly against her shoulder as he popped the cage door open.
      There were a handful of ODSTs standing on the far side of the chamber, talking quietly amongst themselves. They threw admiring sidelong glances at the two Spartans, but made no moves to intercept. A Red Patch nodded curtly at them and Leonidas grinned. It seemed that Athena had already spread the word. He made a point of getting to know most of the Helljumpers stationed at the Special Warfare Center—especially those from the 340th ODST Combat Training Unit, whom he had drilled with for years. Not that most would recognize him behind the polarized faceplate, unless they had already been tipped off.
      Leonidas noted the increased amount of activity on the base as they exited the armory access building. The alert had really stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest, as expected. In fact, he had counted on a certain level of organized chaos to give them an edge in moving around unchallenged. How they would do so relatively unnoticed was a different story, despite the darkness.
      The roar of a powerful twelve liter engine seemed to answer his unspoken question as its accompanying M831 Troop Transport Warthog skidded to a noisy halt in front of the two Spartans. The vehicle's headlamps cut through the darkness like Covenant plasma fire, and its personnel compartment had been completely enclosed with a tarp. Two members of the Combat Training Unit's Echo Team stared out at them from the open-air cab: Bivins and Rodriguez.
      "Hop in, sirs," Bivins said cheerfully. "We've been…uh…ordered to take you to the landing pads."
      Maria unconsciously brushed two fingers across her faceplate in a Spartan smile. "Good to see you again, Goldilocks. Don't think this means you're off the hook on our bet."
      "No, Ma'am," Bivins replied with a grin, revving the 'Hog's engine. Maria followed Leonidas to the rear of the vehicle, where they piled in with their gear and pulled the flaps shut. The darkness inside was almost as bright as day thanks to their night vision systems. Leonidas had just gotten settled when the Hog tore off down the access road. He hoped the MPs had their hands full directing traffic elsewhere. Bivins had a lead foot.
      Athena's voice crackled across his COM. "I've got a Longsword prepped and waiting for you on runway Alpha-Two-Three, East Platform." Leonidas unlocked the channel so that Maria could listen in. "Be advised," Athena continued, "Operators Jackson and Oboe are also en route to that location. I don't know how they found it, but their AI is good. Very good. I'm not even close to cracking the encryption on their transmission, and I almost lost it entirely."
      Leonidas pulled up a map of the base on his HUD and Athena worked her magic, superimposing a blip on the display moving roughly parallel to their own icon, albeit at a slower speed. It was going to be close. Now he understood the reason for their breakneck pace.
      "Thanks for the escort," he said over the encrypted channel.
      "Thank them. The rest are waiting for you at the runway. I said all of five words and they practically jumped out of their armor to secure the area for you. By the way…" she paused dramatically, a hint of her usual humor trickling back into her voice, "I hope you still remember how to fly."
      "Great," he retorted. "No pilot, huh?"
      "Not if you want to keep it off the books. You do know how to fly a Longsword, right?"
      Leonidas opened his mouth to voice an irritated reply when Maria broke in over the COM link.
      "I do, sir. They qualified us in all UNSC birds. I may be a bit rusty, but I can get us to Luna…assuming we can stay under the Covenant's scanners."
      Leonidas fixed the younger Spartan with a thoughtful look. That last bit meant assuming an awful lot, and he still remembered what one of his drill instructors had said regarding assumptions. Several moments passed in silence while he mulled over their options. Make that 'option', he thought darkly.
      "Okay," he said at last. "Athena, make sure we have clearance for liftoff before this 'Hog stops rolling. Let the ODSTs know we're gonna have company…I don't want any shooting if I can help it."
      "Roger that," the AI replied. "Out."
      Maria cleared the action of her battle rifle, catching the unfired round only a few centimeters from the weapon's receiver. She was fast, no doubt about it. Very, very fast. Leonidas couldn't help but be continually impressed by the capabilities of Catherine's Spartans. They truly represented the solution to all the problems of her father's original program, just as she had predicted. Leonidas did not agree with the methods used to 'recruit' them, but neither could he bring himself to condemn Catherine's decision. Not now.
      The Warthog bucked as it ran over some divot in the road, then shuddered as they crossed over what Leonidas guessed was the edge of the tarmac and into the Center's spaceport section. More jostling ensued as the vehicle snarled up a series of ramps and onto the East Launch Platform. He checked his map again. The ONI spooks were only a few minutes behind them, at the most. He leapt from the back of the 'Hog, rucksack in tow, and trotted over to the waiting Longsword. Staff Sergeant Evers, also known as Echo One, was waiting for him at the foot of the access ramp. Maria and the two drivers joined them. There were now twelve ODSTs around or near the Longsword…members from both Echo and Kilo Teams of the CTU.
      Leonidas returned Evers' salute, then froze as the Helljumpers of Echo Team pulled back from the perimeter, surrounding the two Spartans in a protective circle of black armor. Leonidas watched as Bivins and Rodriguez donned and sealed their own helmets, then turned to Evers with something akin to disbelief. The Staff Sergeant stepped forward.
      "You didn't think we would let you go up there alone…did you, sir?" Evers said with a chuckle, his voice distorted by his helmet's external speakers. Leonidas thought of a handful of things to say in return. Discarded all but one.
      "Athena," he stated dryly.
      Evers nodded. "She didn't tell us the nitty-gritty, Captain…just the basics. I've talked it over with the men, and we figure that's more than enough for us. Echo Team is going with you, sir."
      "And if I refuse?" Leonidas asked sternly.
      Evers laughed again, this time joined by the rest of his team. "Well…we thought two courts-martial sounded just as good as one." They all gazed up at Leonidas' hidden face intently, as if expecting further protest. He was half-tempted to try to order them away, but thought better of it. It was clear that Athena had made her choices carefully, selecting men whom Leonidas had worked closely with. In the end, his honesty still won out.
      "This mission is off the grid, Marines. Totally black. You'll be in harm's way at all times, and we probably won't survive. I can't ask this of you."
      "We know that, Captain," Echo Two—Craddock—said loudly. "We won't be around long if the Covies start slagging the surface, anyway. The way we see it…" he glanced around at his teammates "…better to die on our feet than get glassed on our knees. This is our choice." Nods and half-muttered agreements followed the Helljumper's frank statement.
      Maria suppressed a shiver at the sincere display of loyalty. It was especially moving, in that it was being given to an outsider—someone the ODSTs probably knew very little about. Certainly less than her, and she still felt like she was in the dark. Then again, she mused, they had trained with him. Probably just as hard as—if not harder than—they had trained with her. Perhaps even that truncated facsimile of combat was enough. No, she corrected herself, it is enough.
      Leonidas nodded solemnly. "Very well." He glanced at each man. "Saddle up." A chorus of guttural "oorahs" erupted from six armored throats as Echo Team boarded the Longsword. Maria led the way, immediately moving forward to the cockpit. Leonidas hung back at the edge of the ramp, his calculating gaze trained on an approaching ground car. He motioned for Kilo Team to let the vehicle through, then stepped off the ramp to greet it. He was surprised to see Captain Kim climb down from the driver's seat.
      Jackson and a still-muttering Oboe—both wearing full kit almost identical to the ODST's—followed in the naval officer's wake. Kim wore his formal uniform, impeccable as always. A frown seemed permanently fixed on his generally cheerful features. He marched brusquely up to the older Spartan, locking eyes with Leonidas despite the opaque faceplate.
      "You didn't think I would let you leave without saying goodbye…did you?" the base commander asked gruffly. "Not that it would surprise me. You never were very bright."
      Leonidas grinned from ear to ear. "No, Jae, I guess I never was." He glanced at the two silent ONI agents. "What about them? Aren't they here to arrest me…gift-wrap me for ONI?" He spotted a flicker of a grimace on Oboe's face. The expression would not have been notably different from the norm, but this particular grimace didn't seem…natural.
       Kim shook his head sadly. "No, I'm afraid they've not been given such orders. Actually, I've been instructed to send them with you." A look of warning flickered in the man's eyes. "They have more information on your target. It's 'iron clad,' Richard."
      Leonidas swore bitterly, muting his COM until he regained control of his temper. Finally he took a shaky breath. "I see. And I don't suppose there are any strings attached to this uncharacteristic generosity?"
      Jackson cleared his throat. "None, Captain. We're still under orders to escort Petty Officer Second Class Spartan-062. However, we're also instructed to provide you with any information you might need. That's all…and it's straight from the top."
      Leonidas let out a mirthless bark of a laugh. "Yes. I'm sure it is." He looked back at Kim. "She always was at the top of the food chain."
      "Yes," Kim replied simply. Tonelessly.
      Leonidas sighed. "I don't suppose I can afford to pass up intel."
      "I wouldn't recommend it, no." Kim replied, that look of warning still hidden just beneath the surface of his grim expression. They had known each other too long for such a thing to go unnoticed.
      "All right," Leonidas growled at the spooks. "Get aboard." He watched as the two operatives trotted up the ramp, catching a few eloquently obscene phrases amidst the strange mutterings of the bald one. It was nearly enough to revive his spirits, if only momentarily. He unsealed and removed his helmet, tucking it under the crook of his left arm as he drew himself to attention. Kim returned his salute with as much formality as Leonidas had ever seen the man muster. The Spartan stretched out his armored hand.
      "It's been an honor, Jae. Take care of Athena for me. She's been…a good friend."
      The naval officer grinned that oily grin of his as he shook Leonidas' hand. "The honor is mine, Richard, and…I was about to ask you the same thing." A mischievous twinkle flared in Kim's eye as he spoke, and Leonidas realized there was an object caught between their clasped palms. Something small and rectangular, and oddly familiar. Kim disengaged and, without another word, turned back toward his ground car.
      The sound of the Longsword's engines cycling up drowned out anything Leonidas might have said to his friend, and he opened his gauntleted hand carefully to see what Kim's final gift was.
      A data crystal chip, its core pulsing in alternating hues of silver and violet light. The brilliant glow was shrouded as Leonidas closed his hand delicately around the chip, as if preventing a candle's flame from guttering in the wind kicked up by the Longsword's whining thrusters. He glanced back at Kim, who sat silently in his ground car—well clear of the blast zone.
      The Navy Captain nodded solemnly, and Leonidas returned the nod, knowing that it was probably the last time the two of them would share such a moment of camaraderie. Then he turned and strode up the ramp, into the belly of the spacecraft that would carry him to Luna, and the threat that lurked there like the slivers of pain on the edge of his consciousness. He tapped the hatch control panel, retracting the ramp into the belly of the ship and sealing it for takeoff, then slotted the data crystal carrying Athena's Riemann Matrix into his neural interface port.
      The matrix merged with the layer of memory-processor super-conducting material in his armor...and, by extension, with his mind. The accompanying pain was mild in comparison to what he had grown accustomed to.
      "Richard…" Athena's sad voice echoed in his head. "You're a mess."
      "I know," Leonidas replied softly, prompting a few of the nearby Helljumpers to fix him with curious stares. "Will you help me hold it together…long enough to finish this?"
      A pleasant, feminine chuckle echoed somewhere in his consciousness like ripples in a pool of cool water.
      "I'll try."
      Leonidas smiled warmly. "I figure that's more than enough for me."

First cycle, 96 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
En route to primary objective; grid six-one,
lunar surface (Human Designation)

      "Have they spotted you?" Arco 'Karnamee whispered into his signal unit's receptor. There was no way the enemy could hear him, sealed as he was inside his assault harness and separated by hundreds of units of vacuum, but old habits—old training—died hard.
       "No, Commander," his scout replied, sounding somewhat miffed. "We remain undetected. However, we have observed an increase in enemy activity. It would seem they have assumed a higher state of readiness."
      'Karnamee grunted. "Not surprising, considering the circumstances. We would likely react the same way to an invasion."
      "Yes, sir. What are your orders?"
      "Prepare to move in on my signal." 'Karnamee severed the connection and surveyed his troops. They were well hidden, using craters and lunar rock formations to conceal themselves, despite their active camouflage. Human sensors were known for being sensitive to thermal energy, and the stealth technology ran hot. If they weren't careful, their infrared signatures would stand out brightly in the cold, airless lunar environment.
      'Karnamee toggled his command channel. "All squads…move!"
      The Sangheili and their Unggoy support troops lunged from ancient foxholes, gliding across the broken lunar terrain like the spectral ghosts of his ancestors. 'Karnamee led the charge across the last stretch of open terrain encircling the crater where their target lay. His troops were experienced in microgravity combat, and could move across great distances with alarming speed. Lateral motion was the key, not an upward fight against nonexistent gravity.
      The special ops unit reached the broken rim of the crater in less time than even 'Karnamee had expected, taking positions among the tooth-like rocks that had been ground down from fangs to molars over countless millennia. Probably from other asteroid impacts.
      It vaguely reminded him of Suban—one of two moons orbiting his homeworld where he had received his first low-gravity training. This lump of rock and dust lacked Suban's beautiful teal coloration, but the conditions were very much alike.
      He cast a wary glance over at the hulking form of Bracktanus, outlined in green in his optical display. The Jiralhanae Ossoona had remained silent since 'Karnamee's audience with the Hierarch, following orders as solemnly and efficiently as the rest of his troops. It was surprising, really. 'Karnamee had expected a certain measure of defiance from the Brute. Some kind of difficulty, if only verbal at the very least. He reminded himself to keep his guard up. Just because the Ossoona had chosen to behave thus far did not guarantee his compliance would last the cycle.
      'Karnamee was glad for the moon's desolate landscape, as it offered them multiple covert approaches to the target. 'Karnamee was surprised the humans had not planted any remote sensors to detect such intrusion. Perhaps they were not as intelligent as he had come to believe.
      His signal unit warbled, and glyphs scrolled across his display. The scouts were communicating with line-of-sight masers now, to avoid enemy interception. The textual relay described a series of enemy sentry positions, surrounding a surface mining facility of some kind. According to the scouts' reports, it appeared to be largely abandoned. They had spotted other similarly deserted complexes out on the lunar plain, apparently designed to scoop up the regolith and strip it of valuable materials. A few newer installations still operated, but were obviously run by automation systems.
      More text swept across his vision, this message from V'ro Undakree, his second-in-command.


      'Karnamee nodded absently as he studied the defenses in question. They were mostly automated, and his scanners traced the flow of power back to a central structure: the command center, or some kind of guard outpost. A transmitter array dominated the roof of the structure. That would be their first priority. He toggled his own relay maser.


      Several moments passed before Undakree responded.

      < / AND THE OSSOONA?

      Another pause from his second-in-command, then:

      < / UNDERSTOOD. / >

      Better to keep the Jiralhanae nearby, 'Karnamee thought, where he could keep an eye on him, personally. He could tell his executive officer was not happy with the idea, but there was very little in life that did please V'ro Undakree. He cast a quick glance over at the Jiralhanae's glowing symbol in his display. Every member of the strike team was still running full active camouflage, and the Ossoona's armor featured an even keener ability to bend light than 'Karnamee's own. Bracktanus' vague outline seemed to ripple in his sensor overlay, as if the Jiralhanae had sensed his silent appraisal and responded in kind.
      'Karnamee shook off the suspicions that lurked at the corners of his mind. This was no time for petty racial tension. He would keep a close eye on the Brute, but withhold judgment on the Ossoona's loyalties until he was given a reason to do otherwise. 'Karnamee turned back toward the target, waited until Undakree had relayed his orders to the rest of the unit, and triggered his maser again.

      < < ON MY MARK. > >

      The mining complex was a collection of atmospheric domes covering open-pit mines, as well as boxy hard points leading to subsurface facilities. They grew larger as he increased the magnification of his display. Once 'Karnamee was sure he had pinpointed all the camouflaged weapon systems and marked them on the battle net he checked his weapons. All were fully charged, ready to scorch the blood of his enemies. His shields were running at peak capacity.
      It was time.
      "Go!" he bellowed over the command channel, transmitting to all squads simultaneously. If the humans managed to detect the encrypted chatter at this point it would do them little good. Brilliant emerald bolts of fuel rod cannon fire already streaked toward the human turrets, and the squat Unggoy wielding them were shifting their positions to avoid return fire and confuse the defenders. The driver of one Ghost disengaged his vehicle's active camouflage, offering a blatant moving target to the humans as it rocketed down the left side of the crater, riding the wall. The driver held a fuel rod cannon of his own, and expertly targeted one of the autoguns tracking him.
      'Karnamee watched intently as Undakree led second squad down the bowl-like inner surface of the crater, moving even faster than their charge across the open ground above. They were gliding past the outermost human weapons before the devices even had a chance to engage. To their credit, the humans were not fooled for long. They switched to an alternative detection system and opened fire before the first detonation pack was affixed.
      'Karnamee let out a war cry and surged over the edge of the crater, his squad and Bracktanus right on his hooves. Several Unggoy who held fuel rod cannons were torn to shreds by powerful streams of projectiles from the auto-turrets, though an impressive number of their frantically-fired rounds found a mark. That, coupled with Undakree's skillful demolitions, quickly silenced the human weapon emplacements and shredded the transmitter on the roof. Thick clouds of debris billowed lazily toward the stars as glowing droplets of molten metal and rock haloed the remaining structures.
      As 'Karnamee glided forward from cover to cover he noticed that splash damage from the gel-like, radioactive fuel rod fire had caused perforations in some of the atmospheric domes' smooth outer skins. Only two of the structures leaked air. 'Karnamee ordered his remaining heavy weapons to fully breach the pressurized habitats. Another barrage of globular, incendiary fire washed across the convex surfaces, melting through them with ease, and a host of white plumes sprang into existence. The domes had obviously been designed to withstand micrometeoroids and solar winds, but Covenant energy weapons were another matter entirely.
      Gouts of rapidly freezing air jetted from glowing apertures, followed by several human bodies that flailed desperately in the abruptly frigid lack of atmosphere. 'Karnamee did not envy his enemies' demise, but neither did he revel in it. Such an end was distasteful for a warrior, and he intended to finish the rest of his opponents as he would wish to be defeated.
      Claw to claw.
      Third and fourth squads were already settling into defensive positions around the complex, wary for any response to their assault. 'Karnamee swiftly led his own squad to the innermost dome, which his penetrating scans had shown to be the access point for the subsurface mine shafts. According to the Hierarch's intel, the Wellspring lay deep beneath the lunar surface. It was not unheard of for Forerunner technology to be buried, but 'Karnamee was unsettled by the human presence above the site. What if they had discovered the holy relic and moved it elsewhere?
      No, he thought, they would have little reason to maintain defenses here if the artifact was removed. The only concern that remained was the level of human desecration. They could not possibly understand the intricacies of Forerunner technology, and while it was unlikely that they could actually damage it, the possibility remained.
      'Karnamee leapt to the smooth outer surface of the dome, his traction pads adhering to it firmly with each gliding step. He drew his plasma rifle and energy sword, depressing the activation stud of the latter as a Major Domo Sangheili pushed a plasma grenade through the breach. The pulsing orb fell into the dome's expansive, darkened interior, detonating in the center of the cylindrical chamber. The bright, actinic flash and accompanying shockwave provided ample cover, and 'Karnamee wasted no time dropping through the hole. Several environment-suited guards opened fire as he drifted down, and he dispatched two of the half-blinded humans with his plasma rifle as their projectiles flared against his shields. Covering fire from the other descending Sangheili slammed into the survivors, gruesomely fusing flesh and bone and bodysuit.
      The chamber was suddenly calm, and 'Karnamee peripherally noticed other humans perishing of asphyxiation and flash freezing. Apparently, the facility's personnel had been woefully unprepared for explosive decompression. Three units below, another guard fled along the circular catwalk that spiraled down the inner wall of the cylindrical chamber. 'Karnamee holstered his plasma rifle and grabbed a vertical pylon as he drew even with the fleeing human, using the handhold as an anchor point. His inertia slung him around the pole, and he caught a glimpse of widened eyes through the human's transparent faceplate as his plasma sword sliced effortlessly through its neck.
      The severed head floated free with its helmet as the twitching corpse fell silently, lazily to the metal grating beneath 'Karnamee's hooves. He barely felt the vibration of its impact through the soles of his armored boots, though the arrival of several members of his squad sent a shiver through the curved walkway.
      "Spread out," he ordered. "Neutralize any survivors. Destroy all communications technology you find." As if to emphasize the command, he drew and fired his plasma rifle into a conspicuous terminal set into the nearby bulkhead. The panel exploded in a shower of sparks and molten plastic. His squad went about their work quickly and efficiently, putting down the humans who had not already succumbed to the brutally cold vacuum.
      Bracktanus smashed the head and torso of a female human flat with one massive, armored foot. The sheer brutality of the act, and the way the Jiralhanae's body language seemed to indicate satisfaction spoke volumes about his regard for humans. 'Karnamee filed the information away for future reference and glided toward the large airlock nearby.
      The human engineers had built well, it seemed. The habitat dome covered what used to be an ore reception point, though it had not functioned as such for quite some time, by the look of the place. Hatches like the one before him were spaced at regular intervals around the chamber's various circular catwalks, leading to corridors that radiated outward from the large chamber like the spokes of a wheel. Each hatch was pressure sealed and possessed its own airlock chamber—to prevent decompression of the entire facility, no doubt. All the hatches had automatically sealed when the outer dome was breached, trapping the humans inside the collection chamber.
      'Karnamee grunted. A necessary loss. The humans were practical, if unimpressive as individual warriors. The structural design would slow their progress, though it should be easy to burn through the hatches with the plasma cutters his Unggoy carried. The catwalk vibrated again, and 'Karnamee turned to greet Undakree, who had brought second squad through the breach. The Unggoy were already unlimbering their cutters and positioning themselves in front of hatches. 'Karnamee clicked his mandibles in admiration. His second-in-command was immensely capable. Worthy of leading his own Special Operations force. Only their longtime friendship and mutual respect made serving in a reduced capacity palatable for Undakree. 'Karnamee could not help but appreciate the warrior's staid acceptance of the situation. He deactivated his camouflage, and the rest of the strike team followed suit. It made little sense to use up the extra power at this point.
      "Success, Commander," Undakree rumbled. "We're ready to burn through the hatches on your command."
      "Excellent," 'Karnamee replied. "You take the upper three levels. I'll clear the lower levels, bottom to top. We meet in the middle."
      Undakree nodded and started bellowing to his troops. 'Karnamee relayed his orders to his own squad and motioned for the Unggoy to breach the hatch. Two Special Ops Sangheili stood on either side of the airlock, waiting to hurl grenades through the opening once the Unggoy breached the inner hatch. 'Karnamee watched solemnly as the Unggoy started cutting through the obvious hinges. Then they started dragging the cutters' glowing ends around the outline of the hatch, easily leaping up to complete their cuts in the low gravity. Similar detachments stood ready at two other hatches on the same level. Other Unggoy waited to pour through the breach, eager to cut down enemies on the other side.
      As the Unggoy at his hatch finished their work, 'Karnamee noticed that Bracktanus—still wearing his active camouflage—stood against the catwalk's railing, directly in front of the hatch. He shouted into his signal unit for the Jiralhanae to move just as the hatch cover bulged outward and exploded away from the bulkhead. Bracktanus barely moved, batting away the heavy metal door with a seemingly nonchalant gesture, as if he were swatting at sting flies. A pronounced ripple and flash of blue light accompanied the strike, and 'Karnamee was shocked when he realized that the Ossoona's still cloaked form held a gravity hammer loosely in his right palm, near the weapon's head.
      He had never seen a Jiralhanae draw one of the massive weapons so quickly, or wield it one-handed with such precision. 'Karnamee forced himself to turn his attention back to the Unggoy and their cutting work. The Ossoona could obviously take care of himself, for now. He heard the Jiralhanae snort over the open squad channel, but couldn't tell if it was an expression of satisfaction or disgust. Probably the latter.
      The Unggoy finished cutting through the inner hatch, leaving the lower portion of the metal barrier untouched as they scampered out of the confined space of the airlock. One of the two squat soldiers tapped a waiting Sangheili on the leg, and the taller warrior responded by sticking a plasma grenade to the bottom of the hatch. Moments later a brilliant, albeit silent, flash accompanied the inner hatch cover as it hurtled out of the airlock. Bracktanus simply side-stepped the object, and was pelted by a hail of smaller debris that vented with the rest of the corridor's atmosphere.
      A human guard sailed out with the rapidly expanding cloud, desperately flailing his arms in an attempt to catch hold of something. 'Karnamee almost felt sorry for the man as Bracktanus caught him by the neck and visibly crushed the delicate cervical vertebrae with one huge paw, tossing the body off the edge of the catwalk. This time, the Brute did snort in disgust.
      'Karnamee waited for his Sangheili to toss two more grenades through the breach, then led the charge as they detonated within. The human defenders put up a valiant effort to resist their assault, but were woefully unprepared for the ruthless efficiency of the veteran operators under 'Karnamee's command. The humans were further handicapped by their apparent lack of trained military personnel—at least in any quantity. Most of the humans he cut down wore long, white garments of some kind under transparent environment suits. Pathetically thin suits.
      Probably emergency gear of some kind, he mused, slicing neatly through another enemy's torso from hip to shoulder. The two halves separated slowly in the microgravity, drifting toward opposite bulkheads in the cramped corridor. 'Karnamee had to duck to avoid hitting his helmet on the rock ceiling as he pushed past the corpse.
      It took little time to sweep through the rest of the small complex, clearing it of the humans that survived their initial attack. 'Karnamee passed several places where plasma grenades had simply incinerated small groups of defenders, scattering their charred remains across the deck. The rough-hewn rock walls were equally scorched by the grenades' brilliant fury. First squad rendezvoused with second on the middle level, Undakree reporting much of the same brand of stubborn, yet ultimately futile resistance in the sections he had cleared. 'Karnamee nodded solemnly as he listened, leading both squads back out to the central chamber.
      "Third squad," he addressed the leader of that particular fire team, "I want you to place charges around the perimeter of this habitat dome. When we return with the relic, you will blow the top off of this pit so a dropship can enter. Understood?"
      "Yes, Commander," the squad leader replied eagerly. "It shall be done."
      'Karnamee nodded thoughtfully to himself as he approached the catwalk's thin metal tube of a railing. He curled his long, powerful digits around the bar and cast his cool gaze down at the chamber's floor. A large depression with hulking machinery dominated the area. Perhaps a reception point for the collecting facilities they had spotted on the lunar plain above? Closed-off tunnels led away from the massive machinery in several directions, and 'Karnamee expected that they led to other human habitations, hundreds of kilometers distant. The enemy had riddled this moon with its warrens, to be sure.
      Another prominent feature caught his attention: a large hatch that had to lead to the maze of subsurface tunnels he had faintly detected in his initial scans. Unlike the other, relatively unused mining equipment inside the facility, this hatch had obviously been installed at a later date, and used heavily. Large sections of the rough rock floor had been worn smooth by the passage of vehicles or some other machinery, and the hatch itself appeared to be in good repair. And strong. Very strong. Military grade, if he was not mistaken—and Arco 'Karnamee was rarely mistaken about such things.
      He turned to Undakree, pointing down at the hatch. "Get the Unggoy working on that access point. We need to penetrate the mine shafts quickly if we hope to reach the Forerunner facility before the humans have a chance to respond."
      "Understood," Undakree said with a nod and an affirmative clack of his mandibles. The Sub-Commander went about his duties immediately, shouting for the Unggoy of both squads to use their cutters on the hatch's sprawling surface. 'Karnamee heard a strong exhalation behind him, and turned to find Bracktanus—now just as visible as the rest of them—cleaning frozen droplets of red blood from the head of his hammer with a human uniform. The Jiralhanae's ornate, inlayed armor was bespeckled with similar evidence of battle.
      "You have something to add, Ossoona?" he asked sharply, with the voice of command clearly emphasized in his tone. He did not feel like giving the Brute much of a leash at the moment. Not one bit.
      "No, Commander," the Jiralhanae replied, as though emphasizing the Sangheili's reduction in rank. "I was merely considering the humans' reaction to our…attack. Or rather, how they will likely respond to it." He fixed 'Karnamee with a calm, unassuming look.
      "And?" 'Karnamee turned to face the Jiralhanae, pursing his mandibles sternly.
      The Ossoona huffed again, shrugging his huge, armored shoulders. "We have succeeded in penetrating the enemy's...defenses...if you can call them that. We control the skies. It would seem prudent to call in air support to fly cover over this region while we retrieve the holy relic."
      'Karnamee suppressed his surprise at the Jiralhanae's tactical analysis, then fixed the Ossoona with a suitably dark look. "We are Special Operations, Ossoona. The Shrouded Blade of the Covenant. Air support will not be necessary until I deem it so."
      Bracktanus shrugged again, dropping the soiled uniform to the deck as he strode to the edge of the catwalk. He made no move to clean the frozen human blood from his armor, as though the stains were a badge of honor. 'Karnamee clicked his mandibles again. Perhaps they were...for a savage.
      The Ossoona placed one massive paw on the railing, then vaulted over the side. His hulking form drifted to the floor, twenty meters below, where the Unggoy labored at the huge, reinforced hatch. 'Karnamee watched the Jiralhanae approach the sealed doors, pause—as if to consider their size and durability—and shove the Unggoy away from their task. Before 'Karnamee could bark an angry reprimand the Brute took his gravity hammer in a two-handed grip, drew the huge weapon back over his head, and slammed it into the exact center of the hatch.
      The blunt face of the weapon struck the metal barrier on its narrow vertical seam, and the hatch crumpled violently with the ensuing gravitational distortion around the hammer's head. Unggoy dove for cover as the two pieces of the hatch exploded outward from their severed mountings, folding around and past the Jiralhanae like two halves of a broken hinge. The powerful gust of escaping atmosphere should have thrown the Ossoona backward into the collector at the center of the room, but his hulking form remained rooted in place.
      Magnetics? 'Karnamee thought sourly. It seemed the Hierarch had blessed its pet with all manner of useful tools. Even ones so mundane as to make operating in any conceivable conditions simple. He shook off the trace of jealousy that surged upward at the observation and vaulted over the railing to join his warriors below. Beyond the ruined hatch he could see a large cargo elevator that had obviously been installed to move equipment and personnel up and down the enormous mine shaft. The humans had had ample time to enhance the site, as evidenced by the exterior weapons and well-maintained living quarters. 'Karnamee could not help but wonder whether they had infested the Forerunner ruins below?
      He motioned for Undakree to lead the way, then followed second squad as they boarded and secured the huge lift platform. First squad followed closely behind, covering their rear despite the two vigilant squads above. One could never be too careful behind enemy lines.
      Or below them, in this case.
      It took his Unggoy a little time to decipher the human control system and put the lift in motion. An annoying, soft-spoken alien voice told passengers to "secure all equipment and engage restraints." 'Karnamee chuckled at the inanity of the message, but nevertheless took hold of a nearby pylon. Who knew how fast the crude elevator would drop? Any modern Covenant facility would have used a gravity lift for such things.
      The platform vibrated faintly as it began its descent, moving much more slowly than 'Karnamee had anticipated. The system was primitive, indeed. As they plunged ponderously into the depths of the mine shaft, 'Karnamee wondered why the lift was taking so long to complete its task. After all, there were many thousands of units between the surface and the bottom of the excavation, if his scans were accurate—and he trusted that they were. According to the Hierarch's intel, the human mine shafts terminated just above the location of the Forerunner installation. It could not be a coincidence.
      Suddenly, the platform shuddered, coming to an abrupt halt. 'Karnamee instantly crouched, plasma rifle tracking for enemies. The harsh, sterile lights on the lift cut out, shrouding them in darkness. 'Karnamee tensed, anticipating the worst, but no ambush came. No humans sprang from the shadows below, or fell on them from the faintly lit shaft above.
      "Your orders, sir?" Undakree said calmly over the command channel.
      "Over the side," 'Karnamee replied. "Break out the grappling pads and filament casters. We'll descend on the cables and switch to pads if they are cut."
      "You suspect the humans are responsible?" Undakree asked. "That there are others beneath us?"
      'Karnamee snorted. "Aren't there always?"


0320 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Point-to-Point Transmission.
Origin: CAULDRON; Termination: ONI Routing Station 342,
Alpha Secure COM Buffer, UNSC FLEETCOM, Sydney, Australia, Earth.

FLASH 91762P-09

TO: / ONI Routing Station 342, CC: UNSCMID: 03669271, Office of Naval Intelligence /






0322 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Aboard UNSC Longsword Dagger Two, Sol System,
en route to Luna.

      Leonidas yanked open the huge bag of tricks he had 'borrowed' from the Center's well-stocked armory, lifting a small metal case the size of a MedKit from the jumble of gear. The marines of Echo Team sat with their backs to the bulkheads of the Longsword's cramped central compartment, checking their weapons and the seals of their combat armor. They had been well equipped for airless environments—Athena had seen to that. Oversized oxygen canisters and the new air scrubbers. With any luck, their air supply would hold out until they could get to a pressurized facility and restock. Leonidas was more worried about their ride.
      The C709 wasn't designed to carry so many personnel, but it was the only realistic choice for this op. A normal transport would never make it out of the atmosphere, much less past the Covenant interdictors. Only a Longsword would be fast enough, maneuverable enough, for that. Or so he hoped.
      Maria had managed to not only get the interceptor in the air, but also calculated a sophisticated trajectory that had taken them wide of the combat zone, approaching the Moon from the dark side. They would come in at an oblique angle, cross over the south pole, and land near the CAULDRON dig site. So far the scopes had failed to register Covenant fighter squadrons. That didn't mean that they weren't there, Leonidas mused, only that the sensors couldn't pick them up at this range.
      He cracked open the clamshell case and removed the hypos from their padded slots, then inserted them carefully into a compartment in the side of his thigh armor. He left one of the four hypos on the deck and closed the storage slot with an audible snick.
      "What's that?" Maria's voice inquired, right behind him. She had approached so softly that he hadn't even noticed. Considering the weight of her armor—the vibrations it caused in the deck plates—that was a disturbing indication. His thoughts had carelessly edged toward a brooding, hyper-focused state that did not bode well. Not at all. Losing his edge now could prove disastrous when they hit the dirt.
      Leonidas picked up the hypo and straightened to face her. "Meds. Supplements." He popped open a seal near his hip and slotted the specially-designed injector into its corresponding port. The device hissed softly as it dumped its contents through his undersuit, directly into his bloodstream. Moments later, feeling significantly better, he removed the hypo and closed the med port.
      Maria seemed unconvinced. "You need them?" she asked, eyeing the injector with obvious skepticism. She was a Spartan-II. Her body didn't need the same helping hand as his, thanks to Catherine. As far as Leonidas was concerned, that alone made Maria a better soldier. More efficient.
      "Yeah," he said dryly. "I'm not as young as you, remember? Despite my cherubic looks and youthful personality." He swiped a smile across his faceplate—it felt good to speak her language now and then.
      Maria returned the smile. "I see." She motioned toward the marines lining the walls. "Do we have enough T-PACKS for all of them?"
      Leonidas grunted. "Just enough. Speaking of which…" he opened a nearby equipment locker and tossed her one of the new model MMUs—manned maneuvering units—that would allow their strike force to operate more effectively in the low gravity lunar environment. The devices had once been notoriously bulky and unreliable, responsible for many deaths in the line of duty, most of which had been traced back to faulty components or serious malfunctions. Thankfully, the contractors had been replaced by a more reliable source, and recent iterations functioned with few glitches or inconsistencies. That didn't help the fact that he hadn't used one in years.
      Leonidas pulled open another locker and removed his own T-PACK, setting it against the bulkhead near his rucksack, shoulder straps out. He froze, suddenly aware of the fact that Maria wasn't piloting the Longsword.
      "Who's flying?" he said, forcing a nonchalant tone.
      "Jackson," Maria replied. "Turns out he used to be a combat pilot before he got in bed with ONI." She shook her head at his silent, questioning stare and shrugged. "He's better than me."
      Leonidas thought it over for several seconds, then nodded. At this point, he didn't have much of a choice but to trust the ONI operatives...and Parangosky, as much as he hated to admit it. The woman was a manipulative bitch at the best of times; a cold-hearted one at the worst.
      "Okay," he muttered. "As long as he doesn't plow us into the surface." He reached down into his rucksack and retrieved his MA5B, securing it to the magnetic hardpoint on his back. "What's our ETA?"
      "Nine minutes," Athena interjected, over his external speakers. "Jackson made a slight course correction five minutes ago...saved us some time."
      Leonidas exchanged a look with Maria. "Fabulous," he muttered, stepping over the seated Helljumpers' legs as he made his way toward the cockpit. Maria followed him through the sturdy hatch that separated the command and 'waist' compartments. Oboe sat in the co-pilot's chair, although he did not appear to be contributing in the least. Just muttering to himself, as usual. Leonidas noticed that a neural interface jack snaked from the bald operative's sleeve to a port on the control console. Perhaps he was doing something constructive, after all.
      "What's our status?" he asked, directing the question to Jackson. The spook didn't turn to greet them, but tapped a control that pulled up a plot of their course and relative distance to the lunar surface.
      "Almost there, sir. No sign of enemy activity on or above the surface. We're blinded by Luna at the moment, so I can't get a clear reading on the battle right now. According to the last snatch of intel I could get, that crippled cruiser is holding position just on the other side of the south pole. They're pretty far off, and I'm sure we can evade detection if we stay low on the approach. Definitely out of weapons range."
      Leonidas studied the readout intently for a few moments, then toggled the command frequency. "Echo Lead to Echo One, you reading me?"
      Staff Sergeant Evers' calm voice came back over the channel immediately. "Aye, sir. Five-by-five. All COM systems check out."
      "Roger. Get the boys ready to roll. We're on final approach."
      "Understood. One…out."
      "Alert!" Oboe blurted suddenly, "Covenant Seraph-class fighters detected." The man's eyes were wide, but unseeing. Leonidas didn't like the look of him. The man clearly had some issues, and he wasn't sure he wanted him hooked up to the Longsword's computer.
      "Confirmed," Athena added. "Five fighters on an intercept course—half strength for a normal squadron. They're coming from the far side, probably from the cruiser. Sixty-thousand meters and closing." She switched off Leonidas' external speakers, moving to a private channel only he could hear. "I just tapped into the Longsword's computer array. Oboe isn't the only one jacked in."
      Leonidas switched his own COM. "What do you mean?"
      "The smart-AI who helped them at the Center. He's here."
      "Here...now? How is that possible?" he asked incredulously, cursing in the soundproof confines of his helmet.
      "Isn't it obvious?" Athena said tersely. "Oboe's acting as some sort of carrier. I've heard of it before, but I didn't think ONI maintained any construct operatives since the war started. Too vulnerable, too expensive. A waste of resources."
      "Damn," Leonidas said softly. "I guess you were wrong." He switched his external speakers back on. "Can we lose them, Jackson? " He cast a desperate glance at the spook.
      Jackson shook his head, lips pursed. "Not a chance, Captain. And I can't take on five of 'em without a wingman. We're toast."
      "Not quite," Athena said sharply over Leonidas' speakers. "We've got one Shiva-class nuclear warhead."
      Jackson almost visible jerked in his seat. "You can't be serious. At this range it'd—"
      "Do it," Leonidas ordered.
      "But, sir…" Jackson protested.
      "No arguments. Hit 'em with the ASGM-10s and the Shiva. Now, damn you!" He practically roared the last order, simultaneously toggling the unit COM channel. "All hands—brace for impact!"
      He and Maria crouched down behind the command chairs, grabbing hold of latch points in the deck that were normally used for securing extra seats or equipment. The posture vaguely reminded him of a statue—gargoyle or lion—guarding the bastions of an ancient castle.
      Jackson yanked the control stick back to his chest as he thumbed the trigger, launching all four of the Longsword's standard anti-fighter missiles. The deck vibrated slightly as he sent the Shiva rocketing toward the enemy, and Jackson dropped the Longsword into a dive that caused the stars outside the viewports to dance and spin like crazy. Anyone else would've been instantly sick to their stomach, but Leonidas was not bothered in the least. He could still discern most of the constellations, and had little trouble getting a fix on their position in the grand scheme of the Solar System. Not that it would matter much if that thirty-megaton warhead detonated early.
      Moments later a blinding white flash lit the darkness of space, causing the viewports' filters to darken, then go completely opaque. Jackson flew by instruments as heat and radiation licked at the Longsword, raking it with raw, unbridled energy as it skirted the edge of the nuclear detonation. Leonidas felt the latch points give a little as his full weight was applied to them. He barely kept hold of the tenuous grip as the Longsword corkscrewed like a paper airplane in a wind tunnel.
      A terrible groan sounded throughout the ship, and the lights flickered. Failed. The emergency lights kicked in, bathing the cockpit in an eerie red glow. A strong shudder ran through the Longsword, and a shriek rang in his ears.
      "We've got hull damage!" Jackson shouted over the din. He struggled with the controls, still managing to avoid the cloud of radiation burning out in space. The moon now dominated the forward viewport, growing larger by the second. A horrified look twisted his features as he checked his displays. "Hull breach! Aft!"
      Leonidas released his grip on the latch points and hurled himself to the hatch. He smashed the protective covering of the override control and stabbed the oversized button hard. "Stay here, Maria!" he yelled over the command channel, then sidestepped through the slowly opening hatch. Atmosphere howled around him, and he slapped the hatch controls on the other side. The hatch slammed shut, closing off the cockpit once again.
      ODSTs, most of them strapped into their T-PACKs, clung to every handhold and access panel in the compartment. The nearest was Evers, and he gestured wildly toward the huge rent in the rear of the compartment with one arm. The breach had split open the overhead in a two meter gash, and most of the corridor's atmosphere had already been lost to the vacuum. Leonidas triggered the magnetic pads in his feet and reached down to steady Evers' flailing form.
      "We lost Bivins!" Evers yelled over the command channel. "He didn't have his T-PACK on!"
      Leonidas cast a glance up at the rent in the hull, then back down at Evers. He cursed, grimaced, and nodded acknowledgement, then proceeded to strip off the Helljumper's own T-PACK. Evers resisted at first, out of pure instinct, then allowed Leonidas to remove the unit.
      "What are you doing?" Athena protested loudly in his ears. Leonidas ignored her, and as soon as the shoulder harness settled against his armored chest, he took three bounding steps toward the breach and punched straight through.
      His helmet's rear display showed the Longsword's glowing thruster nozzles receding into the eternal night. The interceptor's dark outline was quickly lost against the vast, drab lunar surface, now only a few dozen kilometers distant. Leonidas triggered the T-PACK's thrusters, countering the slight tumble he had picked up going through the hole in the hull. For a few horrible, gut-churning seconds he was sure he wouldn't be able to correct the spin, but his training—and the T-PACK's redesigned systems—came out on top. As soon as he was oriented, Leonidas began searching the sky for Bivins.
      "You're crazy!" Athena yelled.
      "Find Bivins," Leonidas countered, sounding calm despite himself.
      "Why the hell did I agree to this?" she muttered, tapping into his armor's sensors. Her processing power, and host of abilities as a military-grade AI, would give her an edge in locating the jettisoned marine. Even more of an advantage than Leonidas' enhanced vision. He felt a twinge behind his eye sockets and wondered whether she could tap into that, too.
      "I've got him," Athena said, a bit more calmly than before. "He activated his distress beacon. Range: two thousand meters. Bringing up a NAV heading now." The T-PACK indicators on Leonidas' HUD shifted to display estimated fuel consumption and course selection. He would have to decelerate to match Bivins' velocity if he hoped to get a hand on the stranded Helljumper. Athena locked in the course and ignited his T-PACK's primary thrust nozzles, moving him closer to the tumbling marine.
       "Glad to see my roadside assistance plan covers intrasystem tows," Bivins' voice said over his helmet speakers. He sounded rattled, but far better off than any ordinary person would have been under such circumstances. Leonidas grinned.
      "You're lucky I was in the neighborhood, Marine." He cut his main thrusters a bit early and kicked in the retrorockets, making sure he wouldn't overshoot the pinwheeling Helljumper. Just as he got within arm's reach his hand lashed out and clamped onto Bivins' bicep with a viselike grip. He let Athena make the necessary maneuvering corrections. After several moments of synchronized tumbling, the T-PACK's powerful, compact thrusters reoriented the two men toward the lunar surface.
      Leonidas used his sensors to track as much of the sky as he could, looking for any Scarabs that might have survived the Shiva detonation. On a hunch, he checked his shield status. The subsystem was under light stress.
      "You feeling alright, Bivins?" he asked mildly, not wanting to alarm the marine.
      "Considering how I just got sucked out of an aerospace fighter at Mach holy shit? Yeah." The ODST coughed weakly. "But seriously, Cap'…I'm feeling a little queasy. My stomach is telling me to puke, and the meds are telling it to tie a knot in my esophagus."
      Leonidas suppressed the urge to nod. "Okay. Hang in there, son. We're gonna burn for dirt and pray to God the Covenant don't have another squadron nearby."
      "Copy that, sir. Just one thing…."
      Leonidas chuckled. "What's that, son?"
      "Remind me to put on a seat belt next time."
      Athena mumbled something dark and utterly obscene under her breath. Leonidas thought it was something about his mother and a lobotomized Grunt, but he wasn't sure.
      He couldn't help but laugh.

0329 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Point-to-Point Transmission,
Origin: Unknown; Termination: Section Zero,
Gamma Secure Antenna Array,
Station L34, Shackleton City, Luna.

FLASH 82205E-01

PUBLIC KEY: / -- /
TO: / Station L34, Office of Naval Intelligence /







First cycle, 139 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
En route to primary objective; grid six-one,
lunar subsurface mine (Current Depth: 2483 units)

      Arco 'Karnamee grunted as he repositioned his climbing pads, dialing back their strength so he could more easily glide down the sheer face of the mine shaft, rather than clump down it like an impossibly acrobatic Mgalekgolo. They had been forced to abandon their filament-assisted descent when human maintenance automatons of some kind attacked the two Unggoy guarding the casters, cutting the cables. The Unggoy had managed to alert 'Karnamee before the filaments were severed, but they had been unable to destroy all of the machines before the damage was done.
      There was an undeniably effective mind working against them, and 'Karnamee suspected the body that carried it lay somewhere below his hooves. Undakree and his second squad had already reached the bottom of the central shaft and were securing the immediate area. His second-in-command had reported that another set of blast doors barred their way, these even thicker than the first. 'Karnamee doubted Bracktanus would risk damaging his crude cudgel on them.
      He glanced down to gauge the distance, then dropped to the smooth rock floor. 'Karnamee felt the crunch of fine gravel beneath his armored hooves as he turned to face Undakree. Bracktanus stood off to one side, small yellow eyes seeming to glow in the darkness. Their human adversary had cut all power to the illumination system in this section of the facility as well, and 'Karnamee's low-light vision painted an even more disturbingly garish picture of the imposing Jiralhanae.
      "Do you wish us to affix demolitions to the hatch, Commander?" Undakree asked, a note of frustration in his voice. 'Karnamee consulted the intel he had been given by the Hierarch, checking on their position relative to the Forerunner installation's supposed depth. They were within a relatively safe distance, and time was growing short. The humans would surely mount a counterattack at the first opportunity.
      "Do it," he said, eyeing the defensive positions the two squads had taken up around the massive entryway.
      "Do you think that wise, Commander?" Bracktanus rumbled over the command channel. "Risking damage to the holy shrine?" The Jiralhanae leaned lightly on his massive gravity hammer, fixing the Sangheili with a blatantly defiant glare.
      'Karnamee bristled. "We are far enough from the structure itself, Ossoona. Furthermore, this mission is taking too much time. Every passing minute only decreases the odds of a successful extraction."
      "The Hierarch will not be pleased by your...impatience." The Jiralhanae assumed a different stance, this one even more antagonistic than before. Hs tone made 'impatience' sound like 'foolishness.' Or 'stupidity.'
      "So be it," 'Karnamee shot back, "I will not waste time delicately chewing through every damned barrier between us and the relic while the humans swarm to counter our so-called infiltration."
      Bracktanus pulled back his lips in a sneer. "Sangheili. You give the vermin too much credit."
      "And you give them far too little, Jiralhanae. The humans we slaughtered above were not their best. Not even close. Pray you never have to face a demon."
      "On the contrary, Commander," Bracktanus grinned savagely. "I pray nightly that I shall. Demon would be a rare delicacy, indeed."
      Undakree detonated the explosives, melting through the weak points in the hatch like a plasma sword parts flesh. A barrage from several of the Unggoy wielding fuel rod cannon threw the massive slab of metal backward into the chamber beyond. 'Karnamee kept his eyes locked on the Brute, hand itching to draw his plasma sword. He had little doubt that he could kill the Ossoona, but the speed with which the Jiralhanae had used his hammer to deflect the hatch cover was a nagging concern. If he fell in single combat, the mission would be left in the hands of a victorious, blood-drunk savage. His warriors would not likely survive.
      'Karnamee forced his quivering muscles to relax and turned toward the gaping hole in the rock wall. He could feel Bracktanus' cold gaze on his back. Second squad poured through the breach, taking fire from several humans on the other side. An Unggoy fell in a cloud of luminous blue blood and a puff of methane, and 'Karnamee allowed his rage to boil to the surface. He drew his plasma rifle and charged into the fray, first squad forming up to either side. He ripped a plasma grenade from his belt and hurled it into the face of a human who manned a large, mounted projectile weapon.
      The defender screamed as the sticky ball of blue fire seared his flesh and boiled his eyes away, then vanished in a bright cloud of white flame. 'Karnamee sailed over the barricade and sliced neatly through the weapon's ported barrel. It was already partially melted by the blast, but he was taking no chances of it being turned against their naked backs. These humans were trickier than most.
      More crude weapons' fire erupted from a cluster of squat, prefabricated structures to the left, and the Unggoy fired several blasts from their fuel rod cannon into the midst of the dome-like dwellings. The green, globular explosions where the bolts struck lit the interior of the cavern with an eerie emerald glow, and 'Karnamee took half a moment to allow his plasma rifle to cool as secondary explosions bloomed from the structures. He made a cursory survey of the huge chamber.
      The humans had obviously hollowed it out of the lunar crust in order to excavate the Forerunner facility buried within. A deep, bowl-like depression in the cave floor stretched as wide as three Spirit dropships lined end-to-end.
      Glossy, metallic metal lay in the bowl. Or rather, was revealed by it. The Forerunner structure was spherical, and it was obvious that the majority of its bulk was still encased by the lunar rock. Why it had been so thoroughly entombed, 'Karnamee could not guess. He strode toward the blood-hued surface of the holy shrine and felt more than sensed Bracktanus behind him. The Ossoona would be eager to discharge his duties, no doubt.
      It bordered on blasphemy, that anyone other than a cleric of laminations might directly interact with a Forerunner artifact. Especially one of such obvious importance. And for a Jiralhanae to do it….
      'Karnamee found himself clenching both fists as he came to a halt at the edge of the artificial crater. Bracktanus continued on, dropping lightly down onto the impossibly smooth, engraved surface of the structure. He kept walking, as though he knew exactly what he was looking for. The tapestry of Forerunner glyphs was, for the most part, a confused jumble to 'Karnamee, and he had trouble discerning the structure's entry point. There were no obvious seams or doors.
      "We have found something, Commander," Undakree's voice sounded from his signal unit. "A human oracle. What they call a...'construct.'"
      'Karnamee's mandibles parted in surprise. "An oracle? Is it intact?"
      "I do not believe so. The last human fired a crude rocket into its housing before we could cut him down. It appears that the housing was also stuffed with grenades. There is very little left."
      'Karnamee grunted. It certainly explained the violence with which the dome-like habitats had exploded. He had thought the Unggoy had simply hit something vital. An arms cache, perhaps.
      "Unfortunate," he replied. "Are the humans eliminated?"
      "Yes. All dead."
      "Very well. Regroup at my position. I suspect we will be entering the Forerunner facility very soon."
      "Acknowledged." Undakree severed the connection, and 'Karnamee watched as the warriors of first and second squads trickled back toward the center of the cavern. He turned back toward the Jiralhanae, and was surprised to find Bracktanus kneeling at the exact center of the sphere. The Ossoona's gaze was locked on something beneath him, and he held his gravity hammer tightly in his right hand. 'Karnamee threw caution to the wind and strode quickly out to join him.
      "What have you found?" he asked calmly, as he studied the object of Bracktanus' attention. A large Forerunner glyph—a sequence of concentric circles bisected by two lines—lay at the Jiralhanae's feet. The Ossoona muttered to himself, as though speaking to someone else. 'Karnamee suddenly realized that the recording units of an Ossoona might be capable of greater broadcasting range than his own communications gear. Could he commune directly with the Hierarch?
      Bracktanus nodded to himself and snorted, loudly. He gazed up at the Sangheili with a lingering expression of pure awe.
      "This glyph...the Hierarch believes it signifies 'transit' or 'gateway.'"
      'Karnamee frowned. "And what does that mean, precisely? How do we get inside?"
      "We do not 'get inside,' Commander," Bracktanus rumbled. "We go through." The huge Jiralhanae rose to his full height, dwarfing 'Karnamee despite his outsized assault harness. Before 'Karnamee could utter another question, the Ossoona brought his hammer around in front of him, nearly touching it to the surface of the Forerunner structure. His gauntleted paw tightened on the weapon's intricately carved, well-worn grip, and a ripple of distorted gravity pulsed outward from the hammer's head. It was gentle compared to the crushing violence inflicted on the Jiralhanae's enemies.
      The glyph instantly flared to life, changing color from white to golden yellow. 'Karnamee felt a rumble in the glossy metal beneath his feet. The surface suddenly shifted and seams became visible in a huge star-like pattern across the sphere. As he and Bracktanus leapt clear, the segments resolved into bladelike panels, which swiftly retracted beneath the concave inner edge of the crater and angled upward. 'Karnamee felt his jaws split in surprise as the visible portion of the sphere unfolded to reveal a simple platform that glowed softly with amber-colored light. The panels now surrounded it like tall, razor-sharp guardians that cast eerie shadows across the cavernous chamber.
      Bracktanus thumped one huge, closed fist on his equally massive chest and stepped boldly into the light. Circlets of candescent energy pulsed around his form, intensified, and swept him away. A shocked murmur rippled through the ranks at the impressive sight, yet 'Karnamee never hesitated. He followed the Jiralhanae with his plasma sword burning through the air at his side. Undakree barked a harsh order, and the two squads followed 'Karnamee onto the platform.
      'Karnamee instantly felt lightheaded, and reality itself dissolved into a supernova of pure white light that eclipsed all else. Then, he shattered. It took a moment for him to realize that he could still think, and before that moment had passed his body was no longer incoherent. No longer fragmented. Nausea washed over him in waves, and he felt like Bracktanus had struck him over the head with his hammer. Then he realized that just about everything had changed.
      He no longer stood in the man-hewn cavern. No longer looked down upon a wondrous Forerunner device of unimaginable power. Now he found himself in a massive, curved room with gray, almost crystalline walls of the same metal that all Forerunner architecture possessed in abundance. Light filtered down from far above, and 'Karnamee shook himself mentally. Hard.
      They had been teleported, obviously. He had heard of such amazing events happening before, but not for many ages—and the 'blessed travelers' had never been heard from again. They had, presumably, been gifted with an early start on the Great Journey, but he was certainly not enlightened. 'Karnamee looked around, making a quick head count of his warriors. Judging by the look of them, no one else had been enlightened either. Simply transported from one place to another. He had no idea how far they been relocated, or to where. This place was unlike anything he had ever seen.
      Bracktanus stood out ahead of the squads, his heavily muscled arms uplifted and motionless. A full-throated roar escaped his lips, and what was obviously an excited look flashed in his eyes. 'Karnamee did not like that look. Not at all.
      "Brethren!" Bracktanus shouted to the dumbstruck strike team. "We are delivered unto the Source of ultimate strength! The Wellspring is close at hand!"
      'Karnamee opened his mouth to ask what in all the orbs of Hell he was talking about, but was interrupted by a peculiar sound. A sort of high-pitched warbling noise. He cast his gaze as far down the curving chamber as its shape permitted, and saw a glowing green light zip through the air. It flew directly toward them.
      It was singing.
      "Hello!" the light said, bobbing as it halted directly over them. 'Karnamee saw that it was a spherical machine of some kind. He narrowed his eyes and shaded them against the glare. Suddenly, he recognized an object that most members of the Covenant could identify on sight, even though they had never seen one.
      By the Journey! An Oracle! A Forerunner Oracle! He suddenly realized that he had been holding his breath, and forced himself to exhale. The Oracle continued in that bizarrely cheerful, tinny, artificial voice.
      "I am the Caretaker of installation two-zero. I am Abject Cipher. I have been charged with maintaining this Containment Facility. Please state the nature of your intrusion and prepare to…die."
      'Karnamee's hearts froze as a sudden realization pierced the joyful thought of finally discovering a functioning Herald of the Journey. Disbelief slid like half-melted ice through his veins.
      The Oracle is mad.


In Death's Grey Land -- Section IV
Date: 24 July 2008, 10:15 pm

"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

16 July 2008

"Soldiers are citizens of death's grey
Drawing no dividend from time's

- Siegfried Sassoon



0333 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Low lunar orbit; en route to lunar surface,
grid 336.1, region 233C.

      Leonidas checked his T-PACK's fuel readout again, half hoping the digits it displayed were just a trick of the holographic light. They weren't. He swore, unclipping a length of multipurpose utility cord from Bivins' gear pack. Luckily, the Helljumper hadn't lost all of his equipment when he was sucked out of the Longsword. Just the most critical piece of hardware, under the circumstances.
      Leonidas pulled the now-delirious Marine close to his chest and used the cord to secure the man to his armor as best he could in null gravity. When the T-PACK's dwindling station-keeping abilities finally gave out he would have a tough time reorienting Bivins in the weightless environment. The young ODST groaned over the open COM channel, then made a sickening heaving sound.
      Leonidas grimaced. The inside of the man's helmet had to smell like a latrine after shore leave. Probably worse.
      Bivins was suffering from radiation poisoning, courtesy of the Shiva detonation. The limited med functions of his armor would continue to administer anti-radiation treatment as long as its supplies held out, but that wouldn't keep Bivins going forever. He needed a full-fledged medical center—with all the bells, whistles, and chimes therein.
      "Stay with me, Marine" Leonidas said over the open channel. "That's an order." The stern tone seemed to snap Bivins out of his beleaguered state-of-mind.
      "Aye…sir. Not feeling too…good…at the moment."
      "I know, son. Stay focused. Stay focused on my voice. We'll be groundside in a few minutes."
      "Ahhh…roger. Do me a favor, Cap?" The Helljumper took a loud, labored breath. "Don't tell…the others…about this spacesickness. I'd never…live it down."
      Leonidas' lips twisted in a grim, commiserative smile behind his faceplate. "You got it, kid. Stay with me." He toggled his COM channel over to the frequency linked with Athena. "How's it looking?"
      "Not bad. Not great, but it could be worse. I've put us on a more or less straight shot and Luna's gravity has us, but we'll need to execute a burn of whatever the T-PACK has left before we get within a kilometer of the surface. Our point of impact should be a nice, soft blanket of regolith a few centimeters deep."
      Leonidas chuckled wryly. "I love how you said 'impact,' there. Very optimistic. Damn near cheerful."
      Athena laughed, a welcome sound amidst the utter silence of space. "Can't help it. I guess hanging around with you all this time has rubbed off in more ways than one."
      "Guess so," Leonidas said softly. "Should I jettison the T-PACK before impact?"
      "No. It would change our attitude relative to the surface. Besides, your armor and shield will crush it flat without a problem, and there won't be anything volatile left inside at that point. Might even absorb some of the shock."
      Leonidas frowned as he checked his rangefinder. "We're coming up on two kilometers." He toggled the data link with Bivins' ODST armor, eyeing the young soldier's vitals critically. "Will Bivins survive this?"
      The AI hesitated before answering. "I think so. His suit has limited over-pressurization capabilities. They designed them that way to increase survivability after HEV parachute failure. But in his current condition…I don't know. The bigger question is whether that cord you lashed him down with will hold."
      Leonidas checked the rangefinder again. One-point-two kilometers. "I've got that covered." He crossed his arms over Bivins' torso, the man's gear pack cushioning the Helljumper against his armor's gray chest plate. Leonidas triggered the locking mechanisms in the MJOLNIR's shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints so he wouldn't crush the Marine when they hit the deck. "Start the retro burn."
      "Roger," Athena responded, instantly all business. "Initiating burn in five…four…three…two…one." The T-PACK's thrusters fired, giving Leonidas the abrupt, impossible sensation that there was indeed gravity in space, and that he was lying on his back with an elephant standing on his sternum. The thrusters continued to burn for several pulse-pounding seconds as the MMU exhausted the last of its fuel supply. The secondary attitude-control jets wouldn't be enough to slow them—only one shot to get it right.
      As the velocity numbers on his HUD dropped near the theoretical lethal force threshold, the T-PACK sputtered and died. The pressure on his chest vanished and the two men fell silently—almost elegantly—through the cold, lifeless void.
      Leonidas reminded himself to breathe, then toggled his helmet's rear display. Luna's monochromatic surface rushed toward them at an alarming rate. Not enough power, he lamented silently. Too much speed.
      Athena began counting down the seconds until impact. Leonidas found he had the presence of mind to clench his teeth together so he wouldn't bite off his own tongue. Might lose a few fangs that way, but it was better than bleeding to death in his helmet.

0333 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Aboard UNSC Longsword Dagger Two, Sol System,
en route to lunar surface.

      "What do you mean he's left the ship?" Maria demanded.
      "Bivins got sucked out," Evers explained, sounding a little awed. "The Captain took my T-PACK and—no bullshit, Ma'am—jumped through the breach."
      Maria swore viciously—partly at Leonidas, but mostly at herself for not trying to stop him. Somehow she'd known, as soon as he went aft, that he'd try something crazy.
      And the sonofabitch was definitely crazy. No doubts there.
      But you followed him up here, so what's that make you? Maria silenced the scathing internal critic and opened a COM channel to Leonidas. Static. No response, not even from his armor's automated COM suite. Background radiation from the nuke was probably screwing with communications again.
      Or he was KIA, along with Bivins. She tapped Jackson lightly on the shoulder. "What's our status?"
      Jackson grunted. "We're in one piece. A broken piece, but I think I can set her down without shredding what's left. VTOL is out, for sure." He flicked a switch and frowned at the console. "We're off course."
      Maria grimaced. "By how much?"
      "A few kilometers. Not bad, considering the guidance computer is shot to hell." He twitched the throttle control a little, as if emphasizing the point. The Longsword responded sluggishly.
      Maria stared at Jackson with something akin to disbelief. "If guidance is out, how are you…"
      "Navigating? I'm not. He is." Jackson canted his head in Oboe's direction. Maria stared quizzically at the ONI operative sitting in the copilot's seat. The man turned to fix her with a calm, calculating glance that she hadn't seen on his face before.
      "You're holding our course?" Maria asked, incredulously.
      "Yes," Oboe replied, his voice sounding odd. An octave higher, more penetrating.
      "You're not Oboe," Maria said suddenly as realization dawned. "You're the other smart AI Leonidas mentioned."
      Oboe eyed her calmly for several moments before responding. "Yes. He is quite astute, for an antique. I am Cerberus. UNSC AI serial number 0453-1."
      "Why are you here? Why did they send you?"
      "To help you, of course. My orders are to aid in the repelling of the Covenant strike force and secure the dig site at all costs."
      Maria's eyes narrowed. "Dig site? Explain."
      Oboe—or rather, the intelligence lurking behind Oboe's eyes—hesitated noticeably. "Forerunner ruins…namely, a large artifact of some kind. It was uncovered by lunar prospectors two years ago. ONI began archeological operations immediately and secured the find. Our Section was given direct oversight."
      "In other words, Parangosky was given direct oversight."
      "I'm not sure what you mean," Cerberus said, a note of deliberate ignorance in his voice.
      Maria rolled her eyes. "Right. What else can you tell me about this…artifact?"
      "Our scientists have been unable to ascertain its function. Beyond that, we know very little. However, I do possess detailed schematics of the dig site, as well as the mining facility above it."
      Maria nodded, thoughtfully. "That should prove useful. Make sure Sergeant Evers and his men have access to them."
      "Very well," Cerberus replied genially. His unearthly double-voice was beginning to get to her.
      "And keep me informed of your…host's…status. I don't want him flaking out down there."
      "Certainly, Petty Officer. Don't worry about Oboe. He's quite…controlled, for a human."
      "I'm sure he is," Maria said sarcastically. She turned back to Jackson. "How long before we touch down?"
      "Two minutes," the spook replied.
      Maria nodded, toggling her connection with Evers. "Are you secure back there, Sergeant?"
      The COM crackled harshly. "More or less, Ma'am. We've managed to close up the breach almost entirely with arc welders and some spare plating."
      "Plating? From where, Sergeant?"
      "Let's just say the place is a little less homey, Ma'am. We'll be fine."
      "Copy that," Maria replied with a low chuckle. "Brace yourselves. We're on final approach, and the landing might be a little rough. Echo Lead, out." With that simple statement she had assumed command of the mission. Leonidas—if he had managed to survive—was on his own. She didn't like it, but the Longsword wouldn't hold together long enough to execute search operations, and the Captain must have realized that. He must have had a plan.
      Or so she hoped.
      "Here we go," Jackson said through gritted teeth. He was flying practically dead-stick, what with the pounding the Longsword's systems had taken at the hands of the nuclear warhead. Barely-dampened EMP effects, in addition to the outright thermal damage on the hull and control surfaces.
      The Longsword shuddered as its engines protested the strain. Jackson kicked in retrorockets to lessen their velocity as he brought the craft in low, skimming over the bleak lunar surface. Maria's HUD marked their position relative to the objective. They'd be almost ten klicks off course, assuming Jackson could land the ship in one piece where he'd said he would. She could cross that distance in short order, given the conditions, but could the ODSTs do the same? They were undeniably tough, but the hull breach had to have taken something out of them. It was a miracle they'd only lost one man to explosive decompression.
      Maria reached down and grabbed a fresh pair of anchor points on the deck. She and Leonidas had badly torqued the others. Fortunately, this would be the last bumpy ride to endure, either way. The surface of Luna rushed toward them as Jackson kicked in the landing jets and went to full reverse thrust. He brought the Longsword in low over a long stretch of twilit highlands, and Maria realized he was going to attempt to slide the craft in on its belly. A potentially fatal technique, should they scrape over an outcropping of lunar basalt.
      Fortunately, the low gravity meant that the Longsword's powerful, albeit wounded, thrusters could do more to slow its mass than on a larger planet like Earth. The craft shuddered as its ventral hull hit the regolith, though not as badly as Maria had expected.
      Suddenly Jackson's finger jerked on the trigger and the Longsword's autocannon fired, recoil thrumming through the deck. A small, uncharacteristic thrust of rock in the Longsword's path vanished in a cloud of dark, tumbling shards.
      Maria gritted her teeth as the craft began to slow, then relaxed her tense shoulders as it eased to a rumbling halt. She heard Jackson breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief as he released his flight harness.
      "Good work," she said with genuine warmth. "We're lucky I didn't have to fly this thing."
      Jackson nodded modestly. "It was touch and go for a moment, but she held together." He glanced around at the cockpit interior. "Good ship."
      "That she was," Maria agreed. "Get yourself a T-PACK. You too, Oboe…Cerberus, or whatever you call yourself. We've got a lot of ground to cover, and not much time to do it."
      "You think Leonidas survived?" Jackson asked softly.
      Maria held his questioning stare for a moment, then grinned behind her opaque faceplate and shrugged her massive shoulders. "What chances would you give him?"
      "Better than half." The ONI operative laughed, shaking his head ruefully. "Better than most."
      Maria nodded. "Good answer."

First cycle, 171 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility;
location unknown.

      Arco 'Karnamee stared at the Oracle in unbridled shock. The ancient machines were not supposed to be hostile. Not one of the legends, nor any of the wild rumors since the discovery of the Sacred Rings, had described such behavior. It was disturbing. Unbelievable. He stepped forward.
      "Peace, Holy Oracle. We are servants of the Forerunners, here to seek their wisdom. For the sake of the Great Journey."
      The glowing sphere hummed a few bars of some long-forgotten tune to itself, as if contemplating 'Karnamee's entreaties with less than full attention. Gold light flared around the group of Covenant soldiers, accompanied by a strange popping sound. 'Karnamee tensed, expecting an attack of some kind, but nothing happened.
      "How odd," the Oracle seemed to say to itself as it pivoted to face him. "That is unlikely, intruder," the machine replied. "You do not match any known biosignatures in my database. Therefore, you must be a highly evolved form of the Flood…though I must admit to puzzlement regarding your survival. No life forms of such significant biomass should have remained intact after the firing of Halo." The Oracle laughed weirdly, its synthetic voice grating on 'Karnamee's nerves.
      "We are not Parasites, Holy Oracle," Bracktanus rumbled, fingering his gravity hammer with the first sign of unease 'Karnamee had seen him exhibit. Apparently, the entity's erratic behavior had also caught the Ossoona off-guard. "We seek the Wellspring."
      Abject Cipher spun in place, bobbing on an intangible, levitating force that failed to register on 'Karnamee's sensors. "Wellspring? I find no such reference in my database." He floated over their heads, assuming a new vantage point. "Regardless of your objectives and infection status, I cannot allow you to threaten containment."
      "Containment…of what?" 'Karnamee asked, frustration filling his voice.
      The Oracle recoiled, as if shocked by the audacity of the question. "Why, specimen prime, of course! The very reason this facility was constructed within a Slipspace compression envelope. The simple fact that you lack such information merely increases your threat level. Please await sterilization."
      "Not likely," Bracktanus growled, raising his gravity hammer toward the Oracle. A flash of blue light arced from the head of the weapon and Abject Cipher crashed to the floor. The green glow in its single, oversized 'eye' flickered and died.
      "What are you doing?" 'Karnamee demanded.
      "Ensuring the success of the mission, Sangheili." The Jiralhanae waved a massive paw, and the air rippled as an entire pack of similarly armored Brutes materialized around them.
      'Karnamee growled savagely, drawing his plasma sword as his troops spun to face the other Jiralhanae. That strange glow he had seen—the Brutes must have entered with active camouflage engaged and surrounded them, undetected. How could he have missed it?
      "So…you planned treachery all along?" he demanded.
      Bracktanus' chuckle was a basso rumble in his huge chest. "Not treachery, Commander 'Karnamee…a simple matter of glory. This 'Prime Specimen' the Oracle spoke of—obviously in madness—must be the same holy relic we seek. The reward for returning it to the Hierarch will go to Jiralhanae, not Sangheili. And certainly not…Unggoy." Before the last distasteful word left Bracktanus' heavy lips, his Brutes had drawn and fired their spike rifles. The bladed weapons' projectiles burned through the chitinous heads of 'Karnamee's Unggoy commandos, whose powerful fuel rod cannon clattered to the ground in time with their twitching corpses. Methane burned from ruptured respirators, and one of 'Karnamee's Sangheili roared an uncharacteristic cry of mourning. Bracktanus had chosen his first targets well. Fuel rod cannon were the only weapons that could take his armored Brutes down with anything close to ease.
      'Karnamee's Sangheili drew weapons so quickly that he barely registered the motion. Bracktanus' Jiralhanae countered by leveling their spikers at them. They were surrounded. Outnumbered. Outgunned.
      "I have waited long for this moment, Sangheili," Bracktanus said menacingly. "Often have I dreamed of cutting those arrogant mandibles from your face."
      'Karnamee laughed, loud and defiant. "Have you, now? I must confess…I've had a similar desire to use your mite-infested hide for a mud rug." The surrounding Jiralhanae snarled at the insult. "However," 'Karnamee continued, "It seems I'll have to satisfy myself with burning it from your bones. We'll not die easily, Brute."
      "Perhaps not," Bracktanus intoned, bringing his gravity hammer to bear. "But you will die. Kill them."
      Beams of red light strobed down from above as death descended silently on Forerunner antigravity drives. The powerful energy discharges lanced through the shields of Jiralhanae and Sangheili alike, burning into flesh and viscera. Bones were charred, and every surviving warrior turned outward to face the new threat, weapons blazing. 'Karnamee howled with fury as he watched his men fall, then turned his plasma rifle on the descending machines.
      "Excellent!" Abject Cipher exclaimed, rising from the floor. "The Sentinels have arrived." The Oracle zipped higher as 'Karnamee targeted it with accurate blasts, which dissipated harmlessly against a blue-tinged energy field. 'Karnamee cursed the Oracle as he shifted fire back to the attacking Sentinels; he saw several other Jiralhanae fall under the machines' onslaught.
      There was no sign of Bracktanus.
      "Active camouflage now!" 'Karnamee yelled over the carnage. He triggered his own stealth system, praying that the machines—the Sentinels—would be slow to detect them while cloaked. It was a risk; their shields would be weakened, their infrared signatures increased.
      As the handful of surviving Sangheili activated their camouflage systems, the Jiralhanae realized what was happening and quickly followed suit. 'Karnamee tried to track them, but his sensors told him nothing. Without locators, he would be unable to pinpoint the rest of the Brute pack.
      But I can track one of them.
      Bracktanus' icon was moving away from the area at a rapid pace, taking the left-hand path deeper into the complex. The Sentinels continued to fire down into the sea of corpses, fusing bodies with the floor. They did not seem to realize that their victims were dead, or didn't care enough to cease their attack. 'Karnamee called for his surviving Sangheili to form up around him. He did not know where Bracktanus was bound, but there was a good chance the other camouflaged Jiralhanae would bar their way, and there were simply too many for his tattered force to defeat.
      The Oracle, Abject Cipher, bobbed high overhead. Suddenly, it flitted off in the direction opposite that which Bracktanus had taken. 'Karnamee grinned savagely. The Oracle might lead them to whatever relic Bracktanus sought, and with the element of surprise on his side he still had a chance to cut the bastard's ugly head from his shoulders.
      Silently, swiftly, 'Karnamee loped after the Oracle. His fellow Sangheili—wounded, weary, and angered beyond mere ferocity—fell in on all sides, eager for blood.
      Blood…and revenge.

0336 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Lunar surface, grid 336.1, region 233C;
En route to CAULDRON dig site.

      Damn. Leonidas tasted blood in his mouth. His body ached, despite the nanogens' efforts to counteract physical discomfort as they repaired damage. He turned his head to either side, testing his cervical vertebrae gingerly. No apparent injury, and the biometrics looked okay, with the obvious exception of his nanogen systems' continuing deterioration. His head throbbed menacingly, as if reinforcing that very fact. He toggled over to Bivins' readings.
      The man was still alive. Still breathing, though definitely unconscious. Leonidas wasn't sure what had knocked the Helljumper out first—the impact, or the drugs coursing through his bloodstream.
      "Probably both," he muttered darkly.
      "Glad you're still with me, Captain," Athena's warm voice said in the tight confines of his helmet. "Any broken bones?"
      Leonidas groaned as he unlocked the articulation points in his arms. "Not for years." He pushed Bivins carefully to one side, letting the low gravity carry the man gently to the lunar soil, and stood up. The remains of the T-PACK were crushed flat beneath the bulk of his armor, crumpled inside the man-shaped crater his impact had carved out of the regolith. It was a miracle Bivins had survived. Leonidas had been confident he would make it through in one piece, but the ODST's fate had been doubtful—and still would be if Bivins didn't get medical attention soon.
      "I still say you're crazy," Athena said, admiringly. "But you do seem to have a knack for surviving near-impossible odds."
      Leonidas snorted. "Duly noted. Now scan the COM channels for friendly activity. We need to get Bivins a medevac and hitch a ride to CAULDRON." He checked his TACMAP, swore viciously. "We're damn near eighty miles off-course."
      "Best I could do, under the circumstances," the AI replied tartly. Leonidas reached behind his back with a grimace and pulled the smashed remains of his MA5B from the magnetic plate, then pushed it away. He drew his M6D pistol and checked it for damage, holstering the sidearm before the ruined assault rifle hit the dirt.
      "I know," he said softly. "You did fine. Better than fine." He frowned, opening the compartment in his thigh. Clear fluid drifted into view, quickly freezing into ice crystals in the sub-zero lunar clime. "Damn," he whispered, delicately picking shards from two hypos out of the compartment. So much for idiot-proof military technology. He inspected the surviving injector with a grim expression.
      "Your supplements," Athena murmured in his ear. "Any of it still good?"
      Leonidas sighed. "One hypo. It'll have to be enough." He reached down and lifted Bivins' motionless form from the lunar soil. "Any luck with the local chatter?"
      "Yes, but I'm getting a lot of interference. Can't make anything out."
      "That happens when you detonate a nuke in space, directly overhead," Leonidas said pointedly.
      "No kidding," Athena agreed. "Your idea, remember?"
      Leonidas chuckled as he started off in the direction of the nearest UNSC outpost, 'near' being a relative term. "Don't remind me. Try to raise someone on the emergency band. With any luck, they'll have patrols out looking for enemy activity." He concentrated on pushing laterally across the terrain, not down. Downward force on the moon turned you into pop-up target on a firing range. Moving forward—pushing across the surface—kept your profile low and small. It was the best way to manage lunar gravity during combat.
      With his powerfully augmented legs and the multiplying force of the MJOLNIR armor, Leonidas found he could maintain a fast, steady pace...so long as the terrain remained unbroken. Such luck wouldn't last long on the pockmarked far side.
      "I've got something," Athena said suddenly as he dipped into a small crater. "A weak signal, though that could just be the distortion. It appears to be heading roughly perpendicular to our present course."
      "You sure it's friendly? I don't want to face off against a Covenant fighter with just my pistol." He waited a moment while she analyzed the signal.
      "Definitely UNSC," Athena confirmed. "I've been trying to raise them. Don't know if they're hearing us, but your COM system isn't quite as strong as I'd like."
      Leonidas grunted as he dropped into another ancient depression—this one several hundred meters across but fairly shallow. "I'll remember to bring that up at the next quality assurance meeting."
      "Funny," Athena retorted. "The signal is coming closer and strengthening. I think—"
      "Let me hear it," Leonidas interrupted. He waited as static filled his ears, then resolved into a distinctly human voice badly mangled by the interference.
      "...Team, do you…me? This...Pelic...Whiskey Three-Zero-Four. Echo Team…." The transmission washed out in a wave of static, but the last two words were loud and clear. Sweet music to the Spartan's ears.
      "Hot damn, they're looking for us."
      "Parangosky must've put the word out," Athena murmured. "So much for covert operations."
      Leonidas laughed as he switched over to the emergency channel. "Whiskey Three-Zero-Four, this is Echo Leader. I'm reading you two-by-three, over." Signal strength jumped as the contact appeared on his radar, now moving toward them at full speed.
       "Copy that, Echo Lead. We are inbound on heading two-two-seven. Activate your beacon on my mark."
      "Roger. Damn glad to see you guys. Echo Lead, out." Leonidas crested the far rim of the crater and gently set Bivins on the ground. He checked the Marine's life signs again, then toggled over to the squad channel. "Bivins…can you hear me? They found us. We're gonna get you fixed up." His efforts only elicited a groan from the Helljumper, but some noise was better than none. Leonidas grinned as his acute vision spotted the dropship hurtling over the broken terrain. His scanners painted the craft in friendly green tones, confirming its IFF tag. He triggered his locator beacon, and the Pelican turned its nose more directly toward them.
      "What are the odds of that?" Athena muttered. "In the middle of nowhere…"
      "Even the middle of nowhere is somewhere during a war," Leonidas stated sagely. "Some of the most important battles are fought 'in the middle of nowhere.'"
      "Desperate battles, I take it?" Athena asked sourly.
      "With very little chance for survival and no recognition, whatsoever?"
      "Something like that," Leonidas replied.
      She snorted. "Sounds right up your alley."
      Leonidas nodded as he watched the Pelican swoop down and pivot on landing jets, blood tray yawning to greet them.


0359 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Lunar surface, grid 217.6, region 231A;
En route to CAULDRON dig site.

      "What've you got, Echo Three?" Maria queried over the squad channel, using their revised call signs. She fought down the urge to whisper; no doubt a ghost of old training from Reach.
      "Lots of bodies, Lead," Craddock replied in a soft voice. Apparently, she wasn't alone in her unnecessary habits. "Grunts and Elites." If he was bothered by taking over Bivins' old call sign, or relinquishing his own, it didn't show.
      "All dead?" she asked, trying to hide the surprise in her voice.
      The scout chuckled. "Very. Clear to advance."
      Maria nodded. "Squad…move up." She punctuated the order with a graceful glide across the broken terrain. Microgravity training had also stuck with her, despite years of neglect. Like riding a bike, she thought sarcastically. Craddock rose from a small jumble of boulders near the edge of the crater and gave a small wave. He held his SRS99D-S2 AM sniper rifle at the ready, the butt of its stock tucked lightly into his shoulder. Her own sniper rifle was locked to the magnetic plate on her back. Maria remembered hearing the ODST complain about being unable to use the weapon during their training exercise, due to the nature of the scenario. She hoped those past protests were due to considerable skill, rather than empty bravado.
      The bowl of the crater stretched out before her as she stood next to Echo Three, surveying the carnage below. Broken, pulped alien bodies were strewn across the area, in and amongst the dilapidated outbuildings of the old mining facility. The place was a mess, though it probably hadn't looked like much before the Covenant attacked.
      "But who attacked them?" she murmured over the command frequency.
      "My thoughts exactly," Evers added, stepping up beside her. She turned her head to regard the former squad leader.
      "Secure the area, Echo Two. Drop some snoops on the ridge here, just in case someone knocks on the back door." She waved the rest of the team forward, her hand signing for them to fan out and clear the crater of any remaining enemy forces. Echo Team snapped into motion, their movements precise and smooth. Their near-constant training operations, tackling some of the hardest spec ops units around—including herself—had definitely kept their skills up to snuff.
      "Clear!" Echo Four—Rodriguez—called over the SQUADCOM. The rest of the ODSTs followed suit in rapid succession. Maria acknowledged the reports with her own vocalization, then moved in on the obvious point-of-entry: a large breach in the central atmospheric dome. A dead Elite lay nearby with a gaping hole in its blue-black assault harness, right over the spot where its four hearts had been. The edges of the hole looked different from the kind of damage inflicted by most Covenant small arms—more like something one would expect from a projectile weapon.
      Tracks from Grunts and the distinctive hoof prints of Elites led up to the dome—as well as larger tracks she'd never seen before. Maria focused her attention on the damaged habitat dome itself.
      "Echo Five, Six…go," she ordered. The two ODSTs immediately charged up the surface of the dome and dropped through the breach. Maria followed a few moments later with Craddock, Rodriguez and Evers right on her armored heels. By the time her boots touched ground far below, Echo Five and Six—Lawrence and Liao—had cleared the chamber. The path of destruction left by the Covenant wasn't hard to follow.
      "Holy shit…" Rodriguez breathed as he examined the ruined blast doors. "Whatever did that sure wasn't messing around. Looks like a tank drove over 'em."
      "Cut the chatter, Four," Evers warned. "Keep your eyes open and on the thermals. They could be cloaked."
      Maria motioned again, and Echo Team moved through the ruined hatch, forming up around her. She leaned over the edge of the huge mine shaft, the light from her lamps disappearing into the seemingly bottomless chasm.
      "Hope no one's afraid of heights."

0415 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Aboard UNSC Pelican Whiskey 304,
En route to CAULDRON dig site.

      "How is he, Doc?" Leonidas asked, worriedly. The corpsman turned his head away from the console displaying Bivins' biometrics and fixed the Spartan with a reassuring smile.
      "He'll be good to go in a few hours, sir. His armor kept him pumped full of anti-radiation meds, so all we'll need to do is run him through decontamination and do some patchwork on the worst of the damage, which isn't too bad considering what he went through." The corpsman shook his head. "Craziest thing I've ever heard of."
      Leonidas grimaced. "Lesser of two evils." He straightened to his full height—not as imposing as Maria, but still far taller and much broader than the medic. "I'll be back to check on him in a minute."
      "Aye, sir," the man replied, genially, turning back to his console. Leonidas clumped forward and squeezed through the Pelican's waist compartment, ducking his head into the cockpit.
      "What's our ETA?" he asked the pilot. The dark lunar terrain was sliding past the canopy at breakneck speed.
      "Four minutes, sir. We'll hold position directly over the site…should be an easy drop to the surface."
      "Good. Have you been able to raise Echo Team?"
      The pilot shook his head. "No, sir…the COM is still sketchy. We were lucky to pick up your signal back there."
      Leonidas nodded. "Keep trying, and be on the lookout for Covenant sentries when we get close." He fixed the man with a poignant look. "After I'm down, get Bivins to a med center as soon as possible."
      "Aye, Captain. Give 'em hell for us."
      Leonidas grinned. "Seventh circle." He shuffled back through the waist compartment and checked a rack of weapons nearby, pulling a BR55 battle rifle and M90 Mk I shotgun from their slots. He was surprised to find the latter on the craft, as most of the fleet had switched over to the newer Mk. II and M90A versions of the Close Assault Weapon System. Perhaps the lunar garrisons were just behind the eight ball, or had pissed off someone in Requisitions, though he really couldn't complain—the old Mk I was his preference, anyway.
      Leonidas deftly checked both weapons for damage, then loaded up on as much ammo as he could carry, grabbing another handful of mags for his pistol as well. Better safe than sorry, he thought with a predatory smile. Frag grenades and flashbangs followed, as well as an extra medkit. After he'd stowed the gear in his armor's designated storage compartments and locked the shotgun to his back plate, Leonidas made his way into the aft compartment.
      He glanced over the corpsman's shoulder, checking Bivins' vitals for himself one last time, then kneeled down beside the stricken Helljumper.
      "Can you hear me, son?" he asked. Bivins exhaled loudly, then groaned and opened his eyes.
      "I can hear you, Cap," the ODST said weakly. "Thanks for hauling my ass out of there."
      "Any time, Marine," Leonidas replied with a smile. "Will you do something for me…after they get you fixed up?"
      "Name it, sir."
      "Find Valentin and Elena Abrams, in Shackleton City. Get them somewhere safe and keep them that way until relieved by myself or Petty Officer Maria-062. Understood?"
      Bivins nodded eagerly. "Yes, sir."
      "Good man," Leonidas said proudly, patting him gently on the shoulder. He checked the timeline in his HUD and turned to the corpsman. "Get his helmet on, Doc. We're popping the hatch." As the medic complied, Leonidas strode aft to the Pelican's closed egress ramp. He ran his armor through one final diagnostic as the pilot brought the craft over the mining facility.
      The overhead status lights went green and the blood tray depressurized with a rush of air as the hatch opened.
      "You ready for this?" Athena asked softly. Something in the back of his skull throbbed painfully as he toggled the open COM channel.
      "As ready as I'll ever be. You?"
      "Just try not to get us killed."
      Leonidas grinned. "Yes, Ma'am." He surveyed the terrain below for a fraction of a second before stepping off the edge of the ramp. He reached up with one arm and pushed against the Pelican's fuselage, trying to gain as much downward velocity as possible. The less time he was a slow, free-falling target the better.
      Leonidas tracked the muzzle of his battle rifle over the buildings below, keeping a close eye on the deepest shadows. His HUD painted everything in shades of glowing green, though his scanners failed to pick up any hostiles. Or friendlies, for that matter. His armored soles hit the lunar soil hard, and he flexed his knees to absorb the shock. Bouncing back up could be a fatal mistake if an enemy was tracking him.
      The Pelican spun in place, maneuvering thrusters aglow. It accelerated quickly, flying over the rim of the crater and out of sight. Leonidas wasted no time moving through the mining facility, or what was left of it. Something very odd had happened here, with Covenant fighting other Covenant. The signs were clear on that. He spotted dead Grunts and Elites, their armor pierced by what looked like…
      Brutes? That's the last thing I needed to deal with today, he thought sourly. A set of tracks in the powdery lunar soil caught his attention; human combat boots, for sure. He moved stealthily toward the center of the complex, spotting the breached atmospheric dome in moments. Another set of bootprints led up to the edge of the dome—larger, precisely spaced tracks that were all too familiar.
      "They made it in," he murmered to himself with no small amount of satisfaction. Maria had taken command of the mission; there was no doubt of that, now. He couldn't help but feel a surge of admiration for the woman.
      "Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to enjoy this?" Athena muttered darkly.
      "You're getting cynical in your old age," Leonidas replied as he stepped up to the hole's half-melted edge.
      Athena snorted derisively. "You're one to talk."
      Leonidas grimaced. "Tell me about it."
      He dropped through the breach.

First cycle, 238 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility;
location unknown.

      Arco 'Karnamee swore inwardly, scanning the cavernous space for any sign of the Oracle's passage. The maddening machine had flitted into a series of curved ducts near the installation's high ceiling, passing out of both sight and sensor range. This had happened several times since the pursuit began, and only the intermittent sound of the Oracle's insane singing—and blind luck—had allowed them to track its progress at all.
      "Lost him again," Undakree growled, clutching his left shoulder in obvious pain. The joint was held together by his armor, battle dressings, and little else. Spike rifle rounds were known for their ugly perforating injuries, and Undakree's armor had been little help after the Sentinels burned his shields away.
      'Karnamee grunted agreement, then swept his gaze and sensors over the metallic floor ahead of him. For all he could tell, it had been thousands of years since anything passed this way, or merely a unit's time. Neither did any Forerunner machines—Sentinels or otherwise—appear to travel afoot. In that regard, they reminded him of San 'Shyuum and their anti-gravity thrones.
      "Wait," one of his scouts said sharply. "Do you hear that?" 'Karnamee cocked his head to one side and turned up the gain on his aural receptors. A faint, almost inaudible humming sound rose above the ambient noise of the installation—air circulating in vast chambers, lights of unknown form or function turning on and off, and the unmistakable thrum of energy moving through power conduits. 'Karnamee focused his sensors on the sound and chose a heading, motioning for his two surviving scouts to move forward. They glided through a massive archway, keeping to the shadows on either side, then gave the all-clear signal. 'Karnamee tightened his grip on his plasma sword as he entered the chamber, wary of another ambush. He had no way of knowing exactly how much ground the Jiralhanae could cover, or if Bracktanus even knew where he was going.
      How even a Hierarch could possibly have acquired a map of such a place was beyond him. If one even existed, it certainly hadn't been included in the intelligence packet he'd been given.
      "Look," Undakree whispered as they moved out onto a bridge spanning a large gulf. The chamber was spherical, and incredibly massive. It vaguely reminded 'Karnamee of High Charity, only far more impressive. He realized they were standing in the belly of the proverbial beast, and that the 'gulf' beneath them was no bottomless chasm—just incredibly deep.
      'Karnamee craned his neck, his words stolen away by the sheer beauty of the sight. Perfection in both form and function. Countless bridges—some made of glowing azure light, others of solid matter like the one on which he stood—crisscrossed above them. Each level of the installation seemed to thrust at least one impossibly slender walkway into the open air.
      He increased the magnification on his optical display. Far above, at the very center of the hollow sphere, floated a platform. Only its underside was visible from their position, but even that was magnificently crafted. Forerunner glyphs etched into its ventral surface glowed with their own light, just like the entry glyph after Bracktanus activated it. 'Karnamee was awed, but as realization dawned the emotion soon faded to bitter frustration.
      Bracktanus wouldn't need a map to find the Wellspring. If he discovered this chamber its location would be obvious enough. Not that reaching the platform would be any easier for him, and even 'Karnamee was unable discern a clear path to the structure from where he stood. There were simply too many bridges, coming from too many directions and countless levels. A labyrinth, with open air for walls. If only they had been issued anti-grav packs, as he had requested….
      "Very well," 'Karnamee murmered, partly to himself. "Sub-Commander…I want you to take half of our remaining force and find a path to that platform, securing it if possible. I will take the other half and attempt to intercept the Jiralhanae."
      "His signal is strong then?" Undakree asked, referring to the locator beacon in Bracktanus' armor.
      'Karnamee nodded. "Strong enough. The signal seems to be eight hundred units distant and several levels above us. I believe we can scale the inner wall of this chamber and intercept him." He removed a grappling pad from his utility belt and checked its meager power level. The descent from the surface mining facility had taken its toll.
      Undakree grunted again, glancing upward. "A pity it is too far to climb; that would save us some time." He fixed 'Karnamee with a worried look. "You really believe you can stop him?"
      "Stop him? No. But I will slow him down...buying you enough time to set up a perimeter around that platform."
      Undakree chuckled, glancing around at the few Sangheili that had survived the Brute's treachery. "I'm not sure 'perimeter' will be the right term."
      "Still…" 'Karnamee continued. "We must do all that we can to stop Bracktanus. I have a suspicion that this 'Wellspring' he keeps referring to is something far more dangerous than any of us believed, the Hierarch included."
      "You mean…dangerous to the Covenant?" Undakree asked.
      "Yes," 'Karnamee replied with an affirmative click of his mandibles. "The Oracle—though obviously disturbed, if such a thing is possible—mentioned the Parasite. Surely you did not fail to catch that much?"
      "I heard. He mistook us for infected intruders."
      "And I also assume you have heard the rumors…that the holy rings harbor facilities containing Parasite organisms?" 'Karnamee fixed his subordinate with an ominous look as the warriors near him readied their own climbing gear. Likewise, the Sangheili to Undakree's back moved into a tighter formation around the Sub-Commander—all without a single command. Finer troops could not be found among the Covenant, 'Karnamee thought proudly.
      "Let us hope," Undakree replied darkly, "that the same is not true of this place."
      'Karnamee nodded. "Let us hope. Go…secure the platform. I will signal you when we make contact with the enemy." He turned sharply away from Undakree, hiding a grimace. The Sub-Commander's injuries were too extensive to take on the Brute pack directly. Or indirectly, for that matter. Hopefully, the delaying action would give Undakree's system some time to recover.
      That, and grant them the opportunity to bleed Bracktanus' ranks dry.

0416 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Lunar subsurface mine (Current Depth: 2505 meters),
CAULDRON xenoarchaeological site.

      "You've got to be kidding," Rodriguez muttered under his breath as he stepped into the excavated chamber. The center of the dig site was carved out like a bowl, revealing the Forerunner artifact that had been buried beneath more than a mile of lunar rock. A glowing, pulsating, disturbingly alien object.
      "You hear anybody laughing, Marine?" Evers asked sharply. "Secure the area and report in…by the numbers, people." He lifted his battle rifle and moved past the ruined prefab shelters, skirting the depression in the rocky floor.
      Maria bent down and checked the body of a fallen defender. The man had obviously been killed by Covenant weapons. She felt her anger rise at the outright slaughter of first the people in the mining complex proper and now those in the dig site below it.
      "They never had a chance," Craddock said softly, the muzzle of his sniper rifle drifting toward the pulsing gold light in the center of the chamber. "Clear!"
      "Against Covie special forces?" Liao replied, shaking his head. "Poor bastards never knew what hit them. Clear, Sarge!"
      "Petty Officer?" Oboe called from the wrecked prefab structures, Jackson standing nearby with his battle rifle also pointed at the alien light show. Maria stood up and moved swiftly to the spook's side, her weapon also at the ready. Who knew where the Covenant strike force had gotten to?
       The other ODSTs reported in and Evers trotted over to Maria. "Area secure, Ma'am. No sign of the enemy, other than the corpses."
      Maria nodded, then turned to face Oboe. "What did you find?" she asked, keeping one eye on the Forerunner artifact. Whatever the alien device was, it was playing hell with her scanners and COM system.
      "The on-site AI was destroyed, in keeping with the Cole Protocol," Oboe said, sounding as clinical as any med tech she'd ever met.
      Jackson grunted. "Not much point now, is there?"
      "Nevertheless," Oboe continued, only this time it was Cerberus' voice filtering out of his mouth, "ONI computer control was neutralized, but not by the Covenant. Fragmentation grenades took out the storage matrix…judging by the blast damage and what little residue remains. It appears to have been deliberate, but there's no way of knowing what happened here."
      Maria scrutinized what was left of the CAULDRON construct, then cast a glance over at the dead ONI operative. "Maybe there is." She trotted over to the body and gently removed the man's helmet. The unfortunate intelligence agent's pale, lifeless skin frosted over quickly in the cold, airless environment as she broke the seals.
      Sure enough, the helmet was a variant of standard UNSC body armor—complete with vid cam and memory chip. She removed the latter and slotted it into a port at the base of her skull. The most recent footage was short, violent, and of little help. Apparently, the Covenant had breached the doors without any thought of atmospheric integrity, then dispatched the humans inside by superior ability and sheer weight of numbers. Maria spooled forward, hoping that the camera had continued to record after the man's death. His head had been turned toward the artifact, and if they were lucky….
      "They went in," she murmured, hardly believing what she was seeing.
      "In…what?" Jackson asked, looking around with a confused expression on his face. "There's no way out of this chamber other than the way we came in."
      "No," Maria said, halting the playback. She pulled the chip from her helmet's reader socket and tucked it inside a storage compartment in her armor. "They went into that energy field." She pointed at the pulsating yellow light atop the Forerunner artifact and began moving purposefully toward it.
      "Wait a minute," Jackson said, jogging to keep up as she reached the edge of the depression. "We don't know what that…thing…is, or what it did to the Covenant. For all we know, it could be the galaxy's oldest incinerator."
      "Unlikely," Cerberus intoned. "I am detecting no heat or harmful radiation of any kind from the device."
      Maria fixed the construct operative with a stern, though probably useless, glance and pointed at Sergeant Evers. "Give me your utility line. We've got time for one experiment." The words were barely out of her mouth when the light intensified, flaring brilliantly, and two hulking forms emerged from the artificial corona. Huge, gorilla-like aliens in hulking armor. Aliens she had only read about and never expected to see up close—the probable owners of the strange tracks and unusual weapons from the carnage on the surface.
      "Down!" she yelled, snapping up her battle rifle. Echo Team responded instantly, scrambling for nonexistent cover while simultaneously training their weapons on the enemy. The Brutes reacted with what looked like momentary surprise, then drew their pistols. The average human would have had to wield one of the weapons with both hands, like a rifle. Maria opened fire.
      Her first burst sent a trio of rounds at the face of the right-hand target, flaring against its energy shields. Apparently, these monsters were well-equipped. The two Covenant warriors fired back, leaping to either side to avoid being caught in a crossfire. The rest of Echo Team opened up, and Maria sent another burst screaming into the head of her Brute. The alien's shields failed, and it clutched at the gap between helmet and massive shoulders as a thin plume of air escaped from the neck joint. Maria's shields dropped a notch as the Brutes' return fire converged on her…the nearest, most obvious threat.
      She shifted fire to the second Brute, keeping an eye on her dwindling shield strength, as Oboe calmly stepped up behind her and fired over her armored shoulder with his M6G Magnum sidearm. The Brute venting air staggered under the construct operative's surprisingly accurate barrage, and Maria saw its massive head snap back as the rounds punched through its helmet visor.
      The surviving Brute charged her, out of rage or desperation. It didn't even make it halfway down the curved, glyph-ridden surface of the artifact before concentrated fire from Echo Team turned its armor into imitation Swiss cheese. The hulking alien collapsed in a shower of sparks, sliding nearly to Maria's boots on the gleaming Forerunner metal.
      "Report," she called over the SQUADCOM. "Anyone injured?"
      "Negative, Lead," Evers responded instantly. He was nothing less than a top-rate noncom, and she couldn't imagine having a better soldier as second-in-command.
      "How about you two?" she asked the ONI spooks.
      "Good to go," Jackson stated calmly. Oboe, or Cerberus, merely cocked his head to one side.
      Maria looked around at all of them. "I don't expect any of you to follow me in there."
      "We know the device functions adequately, Petty Officer," Cerberus interrupted, sounding puzzled. "It appears to be some kind of long-distance teleportation system utilizing technology far beyond our own."
      "Obviously," Maria replied, somehow managing to keep annoyance from her tone.
      Sergeant Evers glanced pointedly at the other members of Echo Team, who gave him fractional nods in return. "We're with you, Ma'am," he said stubbornly, hefting his battle rifle. She couldn't help but imagine a grin plastered behind that dark faceplate. "Got nothing better to do."
      Maria nodded gratefully, acknowledging their trust in her judgment. "Glad to hear it." She turned toward the light, images of her daughter and husband flashing before her mind's eye. She feared for their safety; worried that the Covenant might begin bombarding the lunar surface at any moment. As the writhing energy field enveloped her, and her body came apart at the smallest possible seams, she thought of Leonidas.
      Suddenly, the thought slipped, and all worries about her family were shunted to the side as she rematerialized with a sickening sensation inside the Forerunner installation. Oboe had been right: the Forerunner artifact had indeed teleported them to another place. Where that place was, she couldn't begin to fathom.
      She blinked, augmented vision still swimming with dark spots after the blinding light of the teleportation field. Her visor had dimmed to compensate, but that still hadn't been enough to block out the brilliance of the artifact's energy discharge. She kept her battle rifle up, swinging it around to cover the long corridor ahead. Pale light shone down from the ceiling far above, illuminating yet another sea of destruction at her feet.
      The mutilated corpses of Brutes and Elites lay all around, with a few mangled Grunts thrown in for good measure. All were charred almost beyond recognition, as though someone had taken an impossibly powerful blow torch to life-sized wax figures—without completely destroying the metallic floor underneath. She poked at one fused carcass with the toe of her boot, caving it in like a sun-dried anthill.
      "Someone didn't want company," Jackson muttered under his breath.
      "No shit," Rodriguez agreed. Evers didn't even bother to silence them. He too was awed by the level of damage done to the bodies. Overkill.
      "Let's get moving," Maria said loudly. "We have no idea how large this facility is, but I don't feel like waiting around to find out who did this. Echo Three…take point."
      Craddock's head pivoted as he surveyed the tall, narrow chamber. "Two paths, Lead. Which one do we take?"
      Maria eyed both directions, then went with her gut. "We go left. Move out." Echo Team formed up in front and behind, with Jackson and Oboe on either side. They moved quickly down the massive corridor, eyes scanning for threats. Countless uneventful minutes passed, and they moved down a long stretch of corridor virtually indistinguishable from the path behind.
      Suddenly Craddock was swatted aside like a rag doll, blood arcing from a gash across his back. He wordlessly struck the opposite wall, sniper rifle discharging into the floor with an audible boom and the whip crack of a ricochet. His attacker shimmered into view as Evers opened fire. An oversized pistol was clutched in the Brute's massive paw, Craddock's blood dripping from the weapon's twin blades.
      Maria's finger squeezed the trigger of her rifle as the familiar chaos of battle exploded around her, emptying half a magazine into the Brute's skull. Another instantly appeared to take its place.
      And another.
      And another.


0430 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Lunar subsurface mine (Current Depth: 2505 meters),
CAULDRON xenoarchaeological site.

      "Through that?" Leonidas asked skeptically.
      "How much do you know about Forerunner technology? Did you read the Halo survivors' reports?" Athena questioned, almost caustically.
      Leonidas shrugged as he examined the two dead Brutes. "Couldn't get access."
      "Exactly. I, on the other hand, happen to know someone with firsthand experience." She outlined the glowing artifact in his HUD. "That is part of a Forerunner teleportation grid. Probably a node of some kind."
      "I'm surprised our scientists were unable to activate it," Leonidas said thoughtfully, stepping closer to the pulsating device.
      "The Covenant obviously have more experience with ancient technology. We should probably—"
      Leonidas jumped into the light. His body fragmented, though oddly enough his consciousness never wavered in the maelstrom. Long-suppressed memories collapsed on his mind like an avalanche. His wife's smile. His daughter's innocent laugh. The feel of a cool breeze on his skin with delicate hands squeezing his own tightly, lovingly. Then the past faded like a dream turned nightmare, and reality exploded in being once more.
      He suddenly felt lightheaded and a sharp agony exploded somewhere within his reassembling form. As the incredible machine put the pieces back together he realized the pain was screaming from his entire body, not just his head. He collapsed to his hands and knees when the transition was complete, nearly retching in his helmet. His skull throbbed worse than ever before.
      "Are you alright?" Athena's worried voice thundered in his ears. "Captain…talk to me. Your vitals are going crazy." He fumbled at the compartment holding his last syringe of nanogen supplements, fingers refusing to follow commands to the letter. At last he withdrew the hypo and jammed it into the medical port. The supplements coursed through his system, carried by the little nanotechnology still functioning as it should. The pain slowly ebbed, but did not withdraw entirely.
      "I'm…okay," he gasped. He toggled his vital readout and grimaced. Something in the teleportation had impacted his system badly. The rate of decay had increased.
      "Are you sure? I can't drive this thing by myself."
      His lips quirked in a wry smile. "I'll be fine. Just give me a minute to pull myself together."
      "I don't think we have that long." His HUD showed several approaching targets on the scanner display. Airborne targets.
      "Fantastic," he muttered, willing his legs to act. As the multiplying force of his armor responded, several alien—though clearly not Covenant—machines emerged from a vent of some kind above him. A glowing green light housed in a bobbing metal sphere followed them. It was singing softly to itself.
      "There is so much activity today," the strange sphere said. "My schedule will never recover. Recover." It spun toward him as the elongated machines with fins surrounded him. "A Reclaimer!" the sphere said loudly. "Here? What could be the purpose of that?"
      Startled, Leonidas raised his battle rifle toward the construct. "What the hell are you talking about?"
      'Reclaimer,' Athena whispered to his beleaguered mind. That's what the Halo construct called John-117.
      The sphere canted to one side. "You don't know what you are? How odd. Even I know what I am."
      Leonidas frowned. "And what would that be?"
      The sphere shrank back, as if shocked by his ignorance. "Why, I am Abject Cipher…the Caretaker of this installation. My function is to—function is to—maintain Containment and the functionality of all peripheral systems."
      "Wait a minute," Leonidas interrupted. "Containment?"
      Oh God, Athena breathed. He's talking about the Flood.
      The Caretaker bobbed in place, its green eye flickering. "You are the second life form to ask me that question. How odd. This installation was constructed to contain the Flood. More specifically, to study the first known case of infection from G617g…the only victim successfully recovered from that planet."
      Leonidas felt a cold shiver run down his spine. He'd heard about the Flood, through unofficial channels of course. Even that much had been enough to generate apprehension. "When you say 'victim'…it doesn't sound like you're talking about a natural form of the Flood."
      Abject Cipher floated closer, almost touching the muzzle of his battle rifle. "Of course not. Specimen Prime was one of my creators, though sadly it retains none of its original sentience."
      I can't believe it…a Forerunner survivor, Athena whispered again, sounding awed by the concept. Leonidas didn't know why she was keeping her presence hidden from the Caretaker, but neither could he think of a reason for telling the ancient machine anything it didn't already know. Abject Cipher's intentions were as unclear as its behavior and speech were erratic. He reluctantly lowered his weapon.
      "If this victim was infected by the Flood, why did the Forerunners allow it to live? It has to be dangerous."
      "Oh yes," Cipher said with an excited laugh. "Very dangerous, indeed. Dangerous. However, Specimen Prime was placed in total cryogenic stasis approximately 100,932 local years ago. After the determination was made that it could not be saved from infectious mutation. Infection. Mutagen."
      "Great," Leonidas muttered. "If that thing gets out—"
      "It cannot, Reclaimer," Cipher interrupted haughtily. "I have maintained its containment successfully, and will continue to do so. Do so." It laughed weirdly, spinning in place.
       "Yeah," Leonidas replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Then I suppose you already know there's a Covenant strike force in here with you? And other…Reclaimers…trying to stop them?"
      "Covenant?" Cipher asked, sounding curious. "What an interesting term. You are obviously referring to the intruders my Sentinels sterilized. I was unaware that other Reclaimers had arrived, although it would explain the surge of unauthorized transit activity…oh!" The construct shot three meters straight up, seeming to quiver in midair.
      "Let me guess," Leonidas said darkly. "You missed a few."
      Abject Cipher's green eye tinged red for a moment, then flickered back to its normal jade-colored hue. "It appears that my initial estimate of the intrusion was…inaccurate. No matter. We shall see to the sterilization personally."
      "Wait!" Leonidas said, temper flaring. "What about the other Reclaimers?"
      Cipher drifted back down to face him squarely. "The other Reclaimers? Oh yes, I will attempt to locate them." His eye pulsed, almost too rapidly to detect with the naked eye. "They are nearing the Ossuary. I am detecting several intruders among them. Perhaps they have already begun sterilization? That would be most splendid!"
      Leonidas allowed himself a small smile. "That it would." He toggled his COM system. "Leonidas to Spartan-062, I'm—"
      Golden rings of light enveloped him, and the universe again vanished in a wave of agony and memory, which amounted to the same thing.

First cycle, 257 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility;
location unknown.

      'Karnamee ducked a blast from one of the Jiralhanae's spikers, the hot round burning into the metal bulkhead above him. He returned fire with his plasma rifle until it vented superhot gas then watched the Brute drop, its face a smoldering ruin. More enemy fire chewed into the metal walls around him. The sound was almost deafening in the narrow corridor, and 'Karnamee grinned as the overhead light panels sputtered and died.
      The darker the better.
      They had been able to hold off three concerted rushes by the Brute pack, using the confined space to their advantage. Only two Jiralhanae could attack at a time. Unfortunately, Bracktanus had already realized the futility of the approach and led the bulk of his force down another route, leaving a token resistance behind as a distraction. There were simply too many corridors for 'Karnamee and his handful of Sangheili to cover; the Jiralhanae would eventually find a way into the central chamber.
      At least the Jiralhanae had abandoned their active camouflage for increased shield power; both one less and one more thing to worry about. 'Karnamee prayed that Undakree and his troops would be able to repel the inevitable assault.
      "Grenades!" 'Karnamee howled, tossing a glowing blue sphere down the corridor. His troops did likewise, filling the now-darkened space with hissing blue-white fire. Two Jiralhanae roared in defiance as the plasma grenades adhered to their bodies, then died in a stunningly explosive combination of light and thunder. 'Karnamee sent a well-aimed shot into the head of the last Brute, whose shields had been totally drained by the blast. The narrow corridor had turned into a thruster nozzle.
      "Fall back to first position!" 'Karnamee ordered, checking the rudimentary map his display had been assembling piece by piece along the way. Bracktanus was moving quickly, though his force was strung out in more or less single file due to their individual bulk. These interior corridors had been designed for smaller beings, or Sentinels. Not hulking Jiralhanae in powered armor. He ducked a pylon.
      Or Sangheili for that matter.
      Bracktanus' blip on his sensors was moving fast. Incredibly fast, and always toward the spherical chamber behind them. Whether the Brute's scouts had found the chamber and reported back, or Bracktanus' possessed foreknowledge of the installation, he knew where his objective lay.
      "Commander," Undakree called over the command channel. "We have set up a defensive perimeter around the central platform. I await your orders."
      "Hold position, Sub-Commander. We're falling back to a junction to cut them off again. Their advance scouts may slip through, so be prepared."
      "Acknowledged. Undakree out." The Sub-Commander broke off the transmission, his voice filled with confidence borne out of experience. Both of them had been in dire situations before, and both had managed to survive.
      Though I recall having more resources back then, 'Karnamee thought sourly as he checked his plasma rifle. Its power pack was nearly drained by constant use. 'Karnamee moved forward and swept a fallen spike rifle from the ground, checking the more primitive weapon for damage. It appeared to be functional, and the projectile magazine was nearly full. The rearmost corpse supplied him with extra ammunition. He charged after his troops, sighting down the unfamiliar weapon's barrel as he ran.
      The bulkheads blurred as his legs pumped like pistons, propelling him down the corridor like a runaway Ghost. After a series of twists and turns he caught up with the others, who moved aside mid-stride to make way for him. They reached the intersection a moment later and 'Karnamee turned left, toward the Brute pack's last known position. Luckily, he'd had the presence of mind to tear out his locator beacon, and ordered his men to do the same. Bracktanus apparently lacked the technical knowledge to so blind his enemies, and for that 'Karnamee was thankful.
      As the Sangheili reached another junction, a massive blur lunged past, heading toward the central chamber. One of the scouts, perhaps? 'Karnamee tightened his grip on the hilt of his plasma sword, calling the blade to life as he leapt into the open, slashing horizontally. Another unlucky scout happened to be following closely behind the first and caught the glowing blade under the chin. Shields flared and died, flesh parted, and the Brute's head tumbled free.
      'Karnamee skidded to a halt on the far side of the intersection, taking shelter in the opposite corridor. Two of his Sangheili had made the jump with him, and were now firing around the corner at the rest of the Brutes. Spiker rounds flashed by, and 'Karnamee watched his soldiers on the other side of the intersection hurl two grenades at the enemy. The bulkhead shuddered as they went off, then all was silent. 'Karnamee held his breath, then peeked around the corner warily.
      Nothing. No bodies, no discarded weapons, nor any sign of the enemy.
      "Where have they gone?" one of his subordinates growled, weapon tracking across the empty corridor. 'Karnamee checked his sensors and felt a cold dread settle into the pit of his stomach. Bracktanus' locator beacon was still pulsing strong—and lay at his feet. The Brute he'd decapitated had been carrying it, secured to a small power pack to keep it functioning.
      He had underestimated Bracktanus, and now Undakree would pay the penalty for it.
      "Back to the central chamber!" he roared, frustration and anger at himself filling his voice. He managed to keep anguish and shame from slipping through, but the effort was great. How could he have been so careless? Bracktanus could be assaulting the platform even now, trusting that the rest of his pack would keep 'Karnamee occupied elsewhere.
      "Commander!" Undakree yelled over the command frequency. The Sub-Commander sounded calm, but 'Karnamee had known him long enough to detect the subtle trace of fear beneath the words. He charged after the Brute scout, pushing himself as hard as he could.
      "Report!" he ordered, reloading his appropriated spike rifle.
      "We've been engaged from above…and below." The sound of weapons fire carried over the channel. "Bracktanus himself dropped into the middle of us with his gravity hammer and killed almost half. I managed to jump to safety with the others and my scouts are trying to pick them off with carbines. We couldn't hold the platform…I have failed you."
      'Karnamee swore viciously. "No, Sub-Commander. It is I who failed. I underestimated the Brutes, and they took advantage of it. Keep harassing them, and try to stay out of range of their spike rifles."
      "No chance of that, sir…they are also carrying carbines. However, they do not seem to be very good with them."
      'Karnamee smiled savagely. "Understood. I'm going to come up behind them. Perhaps we can catch them between us. Take—"

0435 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility;
location unknown.

      Leonidas' voice blared suddenly in Maria's ears, carried on a wave of static. "Leonidas to Spartan-062, I'm—" the transmission cut off with a sharp hiss.
      "Captain? Do you read me?" There was no reply. "Spartan-062 to Leonidas," she called out again, trying to reestablish the connection. Her COM system flashed an error message and fell silent, cutting off the static. She was about to try again when Echo Five's voice broke in over the SQUADCOM:
      "Lead, we've got more of those flying things comin' up behind us," Lawrence said in hushed tones. He'd been dutifully keeping an eye on their back trail while Liao was out on point.
      "Copy that, Five," Maria replied, glancing behind them. "Do they seem hostile?"
      "No, Ma'am. They're still ignoring us."
      "Good. Let's hope it stays that way." Echo Team had punched through the Covenant rear guard, which turned out to be a lot thinner than expected. And composed entirely of Brutes.
      "Lead," Evers said softly. "Craddock's gone." He nodded at the collapsible stretcher Liao had packed in with them, and Maria could imagine the sick look on his face. She struggled to keep a similar expression from her own.
      "Damn," she whispered to herself, motioning for Liao and Rodriguez to set the stretcher down. "We'll have to come back for him. I don't like it any more than you do, but the mission comes first." Evers seemed to hesitate, obviously reluctant to leave a fallen man behind, alive or not. After a moment of inner turmoil he nodded, saluting stiffly.
      "Right…let's move, people," he barked gruffly.
      Maria turned to follow him and walked into a column of brilliant light. Or rather, was totally enveloped by it. The sensation was identical to what she'd felt when they first teleported to the Forerunner facility, only far less potent. Before she had time to process what had happened she found herself standing on a bridge without safety rails, looking down on a vast, spherical chamber. Other bridges crowded the space in a confusing, multi-level pattern, and a large platform floated a hundred meters below, occupying the only space in the entire chamber that was totally free of connective walkways on all sides.
      A platform packed with Brutes.
      "I'll never get used to that," Rodriguez muttered darkly, peering over the edge. He and the other ODSTs had gone to one knee on the bridge, weapons bristling outward like a porcupine's quills. They didn't seem to have been shaken much by the sudden change of scenery, but neither were they thrilled about it.
      "What the hell...?" Evers began, staring down at the battle raging beneath them. The Brutes on the disc-like platform were firing over its edge, down at armored figures far below—
Covenant Elites. And not very many of them, by the look of it.
      "They're fighting amongst themselves," she said. "And it looks like that platform is the prize."
      "Who do we shoot?" Liao asked grimly. "The Brutes or the Elites?"
      Maria swapped her battle rifle for the S2 AM. Evers unslung Craddock's sniper rifle and stood beside her, both aiming down at the enemy below. She set her jaw and made the call.
      "Brutes first. We'll deal with the rest after that." Echo team crowded to the edge of the bridge on both sides, battle rifles trained on the hulking aliens below. Maria took a deep breath, then let out half of it with one short word:

0435 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility,
Central Chamber.

      Leonidas didn't know who was more shocked by his sudden materialization—the Brute or himself. Ignoring the white fire running through his nervous system, he lashed out with the butt of his battle rifle, striking the taller alien square in the face. The powerful blow stunned the Brute, who clumsily tried to swat the Spartan aside with a massive arm. Two loud cracks sounded from somewhere above, right on the heels of two heavy sniper rifle rounds that plunged down through the Brute's skull with a gout of dark blood. Leonidas didn't spare a moment to look for the friendly shooters, instead ramming his shoulder into the dead alien's gut, knocking it backward into another Brute. The two went down in a tangle as the rest of the Covenant on the platform realized they had an enemy in their midst.
      "Look out!" Athena yelled as the largest of the aliens—the one carrying the huge war hammer—snarled something in their native tongue and charged him, its massive weapon crackling with energy overhead. Leonidas dodged, rolling into the legs of a startled Brute and knocking it off balance. He felt a twinge of pain in his knee as he came back up, firing his battle rifle point-blank with one hand as the other reached for his shotgun.
      The Sentinels that had teleported along with him opened fire with their lasers.
      The Brutes howled with rage, some of them leaping from the platform to tackle the Forerunner defenders in mid-air. Others shifted fire from whatever they had been shooting at below to target the new adversaries. Even the chieftain turned away from Leonidas, swinging his hammer like a baseball bat into a Sentinel that flitted too close. The machine simply shattered into a thousand little burning pieces and a shower of sparks.
      Leonidas' eyes locked onto the object at the center of the platform…an opaque metal cylinder three times his height and at least four meters across. Holograms danced around it in a sheath of multicolored light, and one display in particular looked disturbingly familiar.
      In fact, it looked like a countdown.
      "Get me into that computer, now!" Athena shouted in his ears, and Leonidas charged forward out of shear desperation. The Sentinels had provided enough distraction to clear him a path, but the alien symbols on the holodisplay were rapidly ticking away. He dropped the emptied battle rifle and lunged at the cylinder, slapping an open palm against what looked like a data terminal. With a blue spark Athena jumped the gap, and purple light swirled up through the ring. He felt oddly vacant after she left, like a sliver of deliciously cold ice had been pulled from his mind.
      A seam appeared at the top of the cylinder, running down the side in a sliver of pure white light. The base of the cylinder lifted from the floor, revealing a hinged mechanism, and the massive stasis pod began to open. Leonidas watched it split half a foot at the top, then the two halves ground to a sudden halt.
      He saw the Brute chieftain turn in the corner of his eye. The alien leapt toward him with a roar, moving faster than he would have expected of something so large. Leonidas fired his shotgun from the hip, his free hand racking the slide in a blur, and the chieftain seemed to slow under the hail of Soellkraft 8 gauge buckshot.
      But not enough.
      Time crawled as Leonidas barely managed to sidestep the Brute's first hammer strike. The weapon's massive head crumpled the floor of the platform where the Spartan had just stood, casting sparks in all directions. Leonidas brought the shotgun up, pointing the muzzle right at the alien's head, when the Brute spun on one trunk-like leg, slamming the long shaft of the hammer across his chest.
      His shields flared as he flew backward through the air, sliding nearly to the edge of the platform with a screech of metal on metal. The shotgun clattered to the deck, out of reach, and Leonidas watched as the Brute clamped the hammer to its back and leapt atop the cylinder, jamming its massive paws into the gap. Leonidas coughed, tasting blood, and lurched painfully to his feet, pulling a frag grenade from his belt. The Brute was squatting in place, huge muscles straining.
      And the gap widened. One foot. Two. Leonidas felt a strange buzzing sensation crawl up the back of his skull, jumping to his temples like one of Satan's headaches.
      He shook his head and primed the grenade—winding up for the throw—when a bright red laser beam lanced into his left side. He fell, shields almost totally burned away, and the grenade slipped from his grasp to roll over the edge of the platform.
      "The Prime Specimen must not be destroyed," Abject Cipher said, floating up over the rim.
      "It's breaking your precious fucking containment!" Leonidas snarled, lunging for the construct. A Sentinel fired another beam into him, this time burning away the last of his shield power and blackening the armor plates on his back. More Sentinels converged on the Brute chieftain , firing their lasers into its immensely powerful shields.
      "The Prime Specimen must not be destroyed, destroyed," Abject Cipher repeated stubbornly in that crazy pseudo-voice. The Brute chieftain bellowed once in triumph, then went rigid as a brown-green tentacle slithered up from the blinding light within the cylinder and encircled its neck.
      Leonidas watched with morbid fascination as the Covenant warrior's shields died and the tentacle pulled the Brute inside the pod. For a moment nothing happened, then the two halves began to close. Athena's form shimmered into being above the cylinder, two meters tall.
      Abject Cipher recoiled visibly. "How dare you allow a construct inside the stasis computer core? That is absolutely unacceptable, unacceptable, and constitutes a breach of—"
      "She just saved our necks!" Leonidas shouted, getting painfully to his feet. "That thing is already awake!" He watched Echo Team drop on rappelling lines, zipping down to the platform below with reckless speed. Maria simply stepped off the edge, the impact of her armor sending a quiver through the deck.
      "Where the hell have you been…sir?" she demanded. The last word almost sounded like an afterthought.
      No…it was more like an accusation.
      Leonidas grimaced. "Now's not the time. We have to get that cylinder welded shut before—"
      The two halves exploded outward, careening off either side of the platform. One fragment struck a Brute that had leapt back to its leader's aid, pulping him like a ripe melon. Leonidas drew his sidearm without thinking and aimed it at the blinding light as Athena's holographic image stuttered and died. The Brute chieftain sprang out of the glow, armor crumpled and misshapen, knocking Jackson and Oboe aside like toys. The alien's helmet was missing, and Leonidas could not help but notice the gaping, sucking hole at the base of its neck.
      The pincer-like end of a tentacle had wrapped itself around the Brute's torso, and smaller cilia were trying to stab into the wound. Leonidas shuddered, targeted the tentacle, and opened fire. His M6D's powerful rounds had little effect, though the tentacle was dislodged from the alien's body. The rest of Echo Team started shooting—some at the Brute chieftain , some at the tentacle.
      The buzzing sensation intensified behind his eyeballs as a second slithering appendage swept out of the light, knocking the Helljumpers to the deck. Maria and Leonidas charged forward together, weapons blazing, as the Prime Specimen finally hauled itself from the skeletal nutrient rack with a deep, rumbling howl. Abject Cipher let out an electronic wail, surging up and away from the firefight as Sentinels arced in, though they did not open fire on the escaping juggernaut like Leonidas expected.
      Instead, the machines' energy beams lanced toward them.


In Death's Grey Land -- Section V
Date: 1 August 2008, 2:27 am

"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

20 July 2008

"Soldiers are citizens of death's grey
Drawing no dividend from time's

- Siegfried Sassoon



First cycle, 266 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility,
Central Chamber.

      Arco 'Karnamee skidded to the edge of a vaulted opening, acutely aware of the long, sloping drop at his hooves. The corridor had terminated at the central chamber, ending exactly where a bridge or walkway should have begun. The central platform lay directly ahead, and 'Karnamee looked across the divide at a scene from hell.
      Brutes fired down at Undakree's commandos, humans fired down at Brutes, and a host of Sentinels warped into being with a flare of golden lights. 'Karnamee roared in anger and frustration, realizing the distance was impossibly far to jump.
      "Look!" A Sangheili at his elbow pointed at the platform. 'Karnamee watched another form materialize out of thin air. A human form.
      No. Not entirely human.
      "A demon, here?" 'Karnamee hissed. He watched, dumbstruck, as the armored human rammed its weapon into the face of an equally incredulous Jiralhanae. Two rounds punched through the Brute's head, courtesy of the humans above. 'Karnamee's keen eyes snapped to the bridge, widening as he saw the second demon standing above the platform, holding one of their accursed sniper rifles.
      But…they were all firing at the Jiralhanae. Not one shot had been directed at Undakree's position, though the humans could surely have done so had they wished. Their targets were, for the moment, 'Karnamee's own.
      "You," he pointed at a subordinate. "Take three others and reinforce Undakree. Tell him not to engage the humans until I give the order." The warrior nodded, motioning to his comrades as he charged down the corridor. 'Karnamee turned back to watch the battle, saw Bracktanus batter the first demon aside and leap atop the cylinder in the middle of the platform. He discarded the thought of firing at the Brute with his appropriated spike rifle. The range was too great.
      The first demon pulled something from its belt—a grenade? Then the Sentinels attacked the human, and the insane Oracle floated into view.
      "Sir, what are your orders?" his scout asked softly, impatiently.
      'Karnamee remained silent as Bracktanus was pulled inside the breached cylinder by the hideous monstrosity within. He should have felt a surge of righteous vindication at that moment, but could not bring himself to feel anything more virulent than sympathy.
      Pity...for a misguided fool.
      He turned to the remaining Sangheili around him. "I have a solution to our problem." They stared at him with a shifting mixture of trust, doubt, fear and hope. 'Karnamee grinned savagely, pointing up at the nearest connecting bridge, one hundred units above.
      "Throw me."
      The look of surprise registered on their faces for a handful of moments, then the realization that he was serious set in. Two Sangheili stepped forward to take his arms, and another two grasped his legs. It was far, but four of the Covenant's best were hardly lacking in muscle. If they missed he would fall to his death. If he failed to grab hold of the walkway…the same. A calculated risk.
      "Ready, Commander," his scout rumbled.
      'Karnamee took a deep breath. "Now!" They launched him, faster than even he had expected. The bridge hurtled toward him at incredible speed, and he lashed out a powerful arm to grab its edge, nearly wrenching the limb from its socket as he twisted around to slam into the surface of the walkway. His body slid off the other side, and only the blades of the spike rifle saved him, lodging in one of the countless Forerunner glyphs on the gleaming metal bridge.
      'Karnamee waved for his warriors to regroup and they faded from sight, no doubt to find an alternate route to his position.
      He stood gingerly, then clenched his mandibles and charged down the length of the bridge the humans had so recently vacated. The cylinder below exploded, and the hulking, bipedal form of a Parasite organism emerged. It was a horror unknown to even 'Karnamee's worst nightmares—twice as tall as the human demon, and far more massive. Twin, arm-like appendages fused into one tentacle on either side of the hideous torso. A gaping maw full of feathered cilia opened to unleash the creature's bone-chilling howl.
      'Karnamee ignited his plasma sword at a full run, watching as the Oracle's Sentinels opened fire on the humans, rather than the escaping Parasite itself.
      He made his decision. Allying himself with the humans was not a possibility. He was the invader, after all, and they could not be expected to hold back their anger or show anything resembling trust. Nevertheless, he could use them as a distraction and finish the Parasite quickly. Perhaps Undakree would have a chance to escape, at least.
      'Karnamee leapt from the bridge.

0437 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility,
Central Chamber.

      Leonidas ducked a whipping tentacle, grimacing as the alien limb struck a Helljumper with bone-shattering force. Echo Six—Shen Liao—was killed instantly. His body tumbled across the platform and sailed into open air. The rest of Echo Team shifted fire in response, struggling to dodge the powerful attacks. Not only was the Flood juggernaut big, it was incredibly fast.
      The Sentinels held their fire, apparently unwilling to fire their lasers near their precious specimen. One of the creature's two massive tentacles snaked out, catching hold of Oboe. The construct operative cried out, firing his pistol at the gaping maw of the Flood to no avail. The beast seemed to shrug off their weapons' fire with impunity. Its other tentacle struck a glancing blow against Maria's shields, sending her careening toward the edge of the platform. Her hands struck sparks against the metal deck, clawing for purchase as her legs went over the side. Leonidas leapt after her, diving to grasp her right wrist with one hand as he fired his sidearm back at the Flood.
      She tossed her battle rifle onto the platform and reached up with her free hand to grab the edge. Leonidas gritted his teeth and heaved, lifting her bodily over the side as another ODST went down under one of the monster's powerful legs. Rodriguez. The Flood stomped on him, crushing both of the man's legs like twigs. Rodriguez screamed, thrashing, firing wildly up at the alien. A second stomp silenced him.
      "Get out of there, Evers!" Leonidas roared. "Fall back, over the edge!" The Marine didn't seem to hear him at first, then gave an imperceptible nod as he tossed a frag grenade at the Flood. The explosion seemed to knock the creature back a few steps; it used the Brute's body to shield itself from most of the blast. Oboe had long since run out of ammunition but was still struggling against the tentacle's grip. Evers, Jackson and Lawrence retreated to the edge of the platform, attaching their rappelling clamps to it. Evers tossed him a hasty salute and dropped from sight.
      The Sentinels finally resumed their attack, firing lasers at the two Spartans. The Flood turned with an unearthly howl, lumbering toward them as Leonidas lunged for his shotgun. He snapped the weapon up and pumped two rounds into the juggernaut before the shotgun clicked empty.
      Leonidas kneeled beside a dead Brute and unclipped one of the glowing orange grenades attached to its harness. The Flood drew back its tentacles, ready to strike, when a blue-black blur whipped past behind it. The beast howled in pain as the blur's plasma sword cut a long, sizzling gash in its back.
      An Elite?
      Blue-white blasts from Covenant plasma rifles lanced up from below, striking the Sentinels that hovered like vultures overhead. The Forerunner machines exploded, raining debris down on the platform. Leonidas narrowed his eyes at the Elite, who had fully captured the Flood's attention for the moment. He primed the Brute grenade and rolled it across the platform. The Flood whirled back to face him, its mouth tendrils waving in his direction, then gathered its legs beneath it and jumped. The floor tilted crazily as the grenade went off—an actinic cloud of fire that licked at the Flood juggernaut's legs as it sailed away from the platform with impossible agility. Leonidas had never seen anything that massive jump so far.
      Maria rushed to his side, her battle rifle snapping up to target the Elite. Leonidas watched his own hand snake up to push the weapon's barrel aside, the movement almost dreamlike. He could hardly believe what he was doing.
      These bastards killed your family, idiot! Why are you stopping her?
      The Elite stood motionless, staring at him across the dancing flames as the air crackled around its still-active plasma sword. It looked even more surprised than he was, though he couldn't be sure.
      "What are you doing?" Maria asked calmly, to her credit.
      Leonidas felt his cheek twitch as he glanced into her polarized faceplate. "I don't know." He cast a quick look after the Flood, which had leapt from bridge to bridge and was now crawling into an opening in the curved wall of the chamber, far above. Taking Oboe with him.
      Poor bastard.
      Leonidas looked back at the Elite, his emotions roiling like the firestorm between them, then strode slowly across the platform with his arms held out in front—palms turned upward in the universal gesture of "don't shoot my ass." The fire licked at his boots and swirled around his legs, causing his revived shields to flicker, but he kept his cold eyes locked on the alien standing before him. The Elite seemed to understand his body language, but Leonidas was taking no chances—the sidearm attached to his thigh was already loaded with a fresh magazine. He came to a stop with three meters between them, hopefully out of range of its sword arm.
      "Why did you help us?" he asked the Elite, praying the translation software wouldn't turn his words into gibberish. They had definitely sounded strained, and it had taken everything he had not to lash out with unbridled anger. The Covenant warrior cocked its head to one side, then reached up—oh so slowly—and retracted its face mask. Four jaw-mandibles parted in an expression that had no human analog.
      "We had a common enemy, Demon," the Elite replied in a deep, clear voice. "You provided a valuable distraction, nothing more."
      Leonidas nodded stiffly. "That may be the case. It still doesn't explain why you didn't let us attack first…maybe wound it again before it came after us. That would've left you in a much better tactical position."
      The Elite shrugged, the motion almost imperceptible. "Perhaps. Perhaps I should have done so." It looked at him squarely, inhuman eyes boring into his opaque visor. "Why did you not kill me when you had the chance?"
      Leonidas took in a deep breath, cursing himself for the course he was about to take. For the betrayal it represented.
      You old bastard. As if letting them go to Harvest wasn't enough…now you're making a deal with the devils who murdered them.
      He gestured after the Flood monstrosity. "We humans have an old saying…'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'"
      The Elite hesitated. "I am not your friend."
      "I'm glad we agree on something," Leonidas replied darkly. "But under the circumstances, it would seem we both want the same thing." The Elite seemed taken aback, though Leonidas couldn't tell whether it was out of surprise or revulsion.
      "You would…ally…with us?" the Elite asked hesitantly, incredulously.
      Leonidas ground his molars. "Call it…temporary cooperation. Both of our forces have been bloodied, either by the Brutes or that thing. It killed my men and I want it dead." He paused for two pounding heartbeats. "Unless I'm mistaken…so do you."
      The Elite inclined its head ever so slightly. "Indeed." To Leonidas' surprise, it deactivated its plasma sword. "Bracktanus was foolish to unleash the Parasite. It threatens us all. I must see it destroyed or the Covenant will surely suffer."
      "I don't give a damn about your Covenant," Leonidas snapped. He sensed Maria tense behind him, ready to intervene if the Elite made a wrong move. Athena's form flared into existence above the shattered cylinder pedestal, flickering wildly.
      "If that thing escapes this facility it could infect every human on Luna," she stated gravely, voice distorted by the damaged computer system.
      "That's a lot of ground to cover for one freak," Leonidas replied out of the side of his mouth. The alien warrior hadn't so much as twitched since his outburst. A very cool customer, indeed.
      Athena sighed, activating another hologram. It displayed a remote view of an unfamiliar chamber—filled with cylinders like the one that had housed the Prime Specimen, though much smaller and completely transparent. Only these pods were filled with misshapen, tick-like creatures about the size of his head, drifting quiescently in a murky fluid. Leonidas felt a cold, prickly sensation form in his gut.
      Suddenly, the Flood juggernaut lumbered into view, its pincered tentacles no longer occupied with either the Brute chieftain or Oboe. It smashed the nearest containers effortlessly, sending waves of fluid and tick-things across the floor. Then it turned and thrust one tentacle into the recording device like a spear, killing the feed.
      "Those are viable infection forms," Athena continued, suddenly sounding tired. "It just let hundreds, if not thousands, loose in the facility. If they find any corpses with marginally intact neural pathways…they'll reanimate them." Her image stuttered, then reconstituted itself.
      "That's bad," Maria said from behind him, obviously thinking of all the bodies left in their wake. "But I don't see how this could threaten the people on the Moon. How could it possibly get out of here?"
      Athena hesitated. "I don't know. It may be coincidence, but…" she trailed off.
      "What?" Leonidas demanded, one eye trained on the Covenant warrior. The Elite's attention seemed riveted on Athena's glowing form.
      Athena frowned, crossing her arms. "That thing is intelligent. It neutralized the Brute chieftain first, then seemed to be working on it…trying to infect it, though I've never heard of anything other than an actual infection form taking control of a host before. Then…."
      "Oboe," Maria said, swearing viciously—an uncharacteristic breach of the legendary Spartan calm. "It took Oboe."
      "And what is the significance of that, Demon?" the Elite rumbled, looking slightly confused. Leonidas decided he couldn't blame him for that.
      "The significance," Athena continued, "is Oboe's unique role as a construct operative. He is the host for Cerberus, an ONI Section Zero smart AI."
      It was Leonidas turn to let out a curse. "Are you saying what I think you're saying? That the Flood can use Oboe to manipulate Cerberus? How is that even possible?"
      "I can't be sure of anything," Athena replied tartly. "Cerberus is stored in specially designed matrices surgically implanted throughout Oboe's body. It's a very dangerous procedure and few subjects survived"—she cast a knowing glance at Leonidas—"mainly due to the nature of the biosynthetic link between the implants and the operative's mind. The constructs also utilized portions of the human brain for additional storage and processing."
      "The guy always did act a bit odd," Leonidas muttered. "So you're saying the Flood can jump the gap? How will that help them? Can't Cerberus…uh…defend itself?"
      Athena shrugged her glowing shoulders. "I don't know. This is all guesswork at best." She pulled up another series of holographic displays that were utterly incomprehensible to Leonidas. "Cerberus may be able to manipulate this installation's systems as easily as I have. If the Flood can somehow take control of him—"
      "They could use the teleportation system to escape," Maria finished for her. "What makes you think this thing is that smart?"
      Athena cast the Spartan a piercing glare. "It used to be one of the Forerunners. Who knows what it is capable of in this form?"
      Leonidas thought back to the strange buzzing sensation he had felt when the Flood juggernaut emerged from its stasis pod. He had thought it just a side effect of the teleportation process, but now that the sensation was absent he wasn't so sure. What kind of abilities had the Forerunners possessed? Could they…put pressure on the minds of others? He suppressed the urge to shudder, imaging what the Flood might do with such power.
      "I cannot believe that a Forerunner would succumb to the Parasite," the Elite said in a menacing tone. Leonidas turned to face him.
      "Believe it. That Forerunner AI is one crazy son of a bitch, but I don't think it would lie about this." He stared pointedly at the Elite. "And Athena is never wrong." Another deep breath steadied him, and his inner demons mocked him. "My name is Leonidas. Are you capable of…working…with me, to end this?"
      The Elite looked down at him with something akin to curiosity, then gave him a passable human nod. "I am Commander Arco 'Karnamee, and there is nothing I am not capable of doing when the fate of the Covenant is at stake. The Parasite must be eradicated." It paused, taking a step closer to the Spartan. "But do not think for a moment that this changes anything between us, Demon. We are still enemies. Once the Parasite is dead, we will finish our fight."
      Leonidas smiled savagely behind his faceplate.

0452 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Combat Medical Center,
Shackleton City, Luna.

      "Please sit down, Corporal Bivins," the nurse insisted, trying in vain to push the Helljumper's shoulders down toward the bed. "You are not fit for duty!"
      Bivins grinned. "Sure I am, Ma'am. You guys fixed me up real quick, too." He glanced at his chrono. "Record time. I'll be sure to come back here if I ever drift too close to a nuke again."
      The nurse released him, realizing it was impossible to hold down a man of Bivins' size and strength by herself. Instead she stepped over to a wall console and spoke hurriedly into the COM unit. "Doctor, please report to bay twelve. Our patient thinks he's leaving."
      Bivins shrugged his way into his uniform, which had been cleaned and pressed at his request. His gear was missing, but that wouldn't be a problem. There was bound to be an armory somewhere.
      A Navy doctor stepped through the curtain separating Bivins' med bay from the next, which happened to be empty. Apparently the lunar ground forces hadn't seen any action thus far.
      "What in hell do you think you're doing, son?" the doctor asked sternly. "You're under orders to remain here for the next twelve hours under close observation. That dose of radiation you took was—"
      "Irrelevant, sir," Bivins interrupted. Normally he wouldn't dare talk back to an officer—even a squid officer—but this situation was far from normal. "I have other orders."
      The doctor gawked at him. "Other orders? Damn it, man…you are under my authority!" The naval officer blocked the exit with his body as Bivins tried to pass. The ODST's friendly expression melted away, leaving only a coldness that caused the doctor to take a half step back.
      "Sorry, sir," he said softly, dangerously. "You've been misinformed."
      "It's alright, Doctor," a harsh, authoritative voice grated from outside the curtain. "Let him pass." The doctor immediately obeyed, and Bivins felt a chill run down his spine at the newcomer's decidedly feminine tone. He'd never met the woman in person, but had in fact seen one old vid presentation passed down from Captain Kim, regarding special operations procedure. And heard the legends, of course…and the horror stories.
      The voice unquestionably belonged to Admiral Margaret O. Parangosky.
      He stepped through the curtain and snapped to rigid attention. Parangosky looked at him like an old praying mantis, intent on devouring her unfortunate mate. Only Bivins didn't feel like a mate at all, just a meal.
      "Ma'am," he said stiffly. "Corporal Kyle R. Bivins, 340th ODST Combat Training Unit, Echo Team."
      Parangosky squinted at him, the crows' feet at the corners of her emotionless eyes deepening. She had to be close to a hundred years old by now, but had lost none of her legendary intensity. A powerful, unyielding resolve that caused everyone around her to feel almost physically threatened, despite her advanced age. She was the most dangerous woman he had ever met, that much was certain. Wasn't she supposed to be retired?
      "I know who you are, Corporal," Parangosky muttered coldly. "I know where you came from, why you're here, and whose orders you think you are following." She stepped closer, her nose an inch from his own. "What I don't know is what those orders are. And you are going to tell me…now." It was not a request.
      Bivins swallowed. "I was ordered by Captain Leonidas to find Valentin and Elena Abrams, here in Shackleton City, and escort them to a safe location, Ma'am."
      Parangosky's brows shot up almost imperceptibly. "And you did not find those orders strange, Corporal?"
      Bivins looked directly at her for the first time. "No, Ma'am."
      Parangosky let out a bone dry chuckle. "Typical. That man always had a knack for leadership—especially with jarheads." She clasped her hands behind her back. "I assume you are still intent on following those orders?"
      Bivins stiffened again, his eyes snapping straight ahead. "Yes, Ma'am. To the letter."
      "I thought so." She glanced over her shoulder at another officer who stood waiting with a computer tablet in his hand. "Call Jerome. Tell him to get a squad of ODSTs up here on the double." She turned back to Bivins, who immediately felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. It would be the brig, or worse, for him now. Parangosky smiled icily, gesturing with one hand at the officer. "This is Lieutenant Price. He'll get you and your men geared up."
      Bivins blinked. "Ma'am?" He fixed his eyes on the Admiral's stony face hesitantly. "You're not arresting me?"
      Parangosky bit out a harsh laugh that could bleach a skeleton white. "No, Corporal. I see no reason for that. In fact, I'm giving you a squad of Marines and the necessary clearance to relocate Spartan-062's family to an OAKENSHIELD bunker, beneath the city. They'll be more than safe there."
      Bivins was caught flat-footed. He stuttered, then managed to get out a "Thank you, Ma'am."
      Parangosky fixed him with another piercing stare, then nodded. "Now I am going to give you an order, Corporal, and I expect it to be followed without deviation." She glared daggers at him. "You will guard the Abrams family, and you will contact me the moment Spartan-062 arrives—if she arrives—to collect them." She crossed her arms. "Is that understood?"
      Bivins nodded, nervously. "Aye, Ma'am."
      He saluted, then turned sharply and strode out of the medical suite, following Lieutenant Price's echoing bootsteps.
      "Oh, and Corporal?" Parangosky called after him. He froze, then turned and stood at rigid attention.
      She smiled cruelly, like a pit viper with PMS. "If Leonidas survives his mission, you are to place him under arrest. Use lethal force, if necessary." She pointed one bony finger toward the exit. "Get moving."
      Bivins swallowed again, nodded, and turned on his heel with one major thought running through his mind.
      This mission blows.

First cycle, 281 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility,
Central Chamber.

      "I don't like this, sir," Undakree growled over the command channel. 'Karnamee said nothing for several moments as he watched the two human soldiers—the demons had called them ODSTs—file across the light bridge.
      "I don't like it either, Sub-Commander," 'Karnamee replied. "But we have little choice in the matter. There are too few of us left to fight both the humans…two demons, Undakree…and the Parasite."
      Undakree pursed his mandibles. "I don't trust them."
      "And you think I do?" 'Karnamee shot back, more in frustration than actual anger.
      Undakree turned to face him squarely, stepping so close that 'Karnamee would have been able to feel the other's breath had he not been wearing his helmet. "I am not questioning your judgment, Arco. We have known each other too long for that. I am merely stating the obvious. These…allies…are our mortal foe. Are we not committing treason by fighting at their side?"
      'Karnamee let his tensed muscles relax, then shot a wry grin at his second officer. "Perhaps, but don't you think the same is true for them…fighting at ours?"
      Undakree grunted. "You always had a slanted way of looking at things, sir. One of these cycles it will get you killed."
      "You are probably right," 'Karnamee said without humor. "Keep a close eye on our warriors…they will be liking this arrangement even less than us." Undakree double-clicked his mandibles in resignation, then nodded and moved toward the cluster of Sangheili commandos. A small cluster it was, and 'Karnamee lamented the fact. Never before had he lost so many troops under his command.
      Never before have you faced so much.
      The thought was little comfort.
      "Are your men ready, Commander?" the female demon asked at his elbow, her tone sounding guarded. 'Karnamee forced himself not to react defensively to the human's stealthy approach. The human called Jackson stood warily at her side.
      "They are, Demon."
      "Good. Captain Leonidas and Athena have pinpointed the location of the control room. They think we can lock out the teleportation system from there."
      'Karnamee huffed. "And we are to…assist you, correct?"
      She shook her head, the light of the Ossuary reflecting weirdly from her mirrored visor. "No. They have something special in mind. The reactors."
      'Karnamee felt his interest rise. "The reactors," he repeated cautiously.
      The female demon nodded. "I'll let the Captain give you the details. Let's just say we've been running into some interference from our friend the lightbulb." 'Karnamee was unfamiliar with the term, but guessed she referred to the Oracle. The crazed machine had vanished during the fight on the platform, and had failed to send more Sentinels against them since. It was surprising, considering the number of the devices they had encountered earlier. The lack of activity worried him.
      "And this other associated intelligence you spoke of? Has there been any sign that the Parasite is using it to enter the installation's computer?"
      She shook her head. "Not yet, but Athena seems to think it's only a matter of time."
      'Karnamee cocked his head. "And what do you think, Demon?" The armored human seemed to ponder the question, and he noticed that she had never let down her guard once since beginning the conversation. An admirable trait.
      "I think we ought to plan for the worst, which is why you're going to hit them where it'll hurt the most."
      'Karnamee grinned like one of the predatory birds of his homeworld. "Indeed."


0459 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility,
En route to the control room.

      "Keep it tight," Sergeant Evers called out, his weapon tracking across the empty corridor. "Check your corners." He barked something unintelligible and Lawrence—the only other surviving member of Echo team present—took the point. Leonidas considered belaying the order, since his shields could stand up to a lot more than the Helljumper's armor, then decided to let it be. If the Flood sprung an ambush on them he would have more than enough time to move out in front of the two Marines. Evers was practically breathing down his neck, followed by Jackson, and Maria had opted to act as their rear guard. Leonidas couldn't imagine having a better person watching his back under the circumstances.
      "It feels cramped in here," Athena murmured in his helmet. "That stasis computer had more memory capacity than ten frigates, combined."
      Leonidas chuckled. "Can't compete with that."
      Athena sighed. "I guess I'll have to make do. Can't complain about the company, though."
      "I'm glad for it," Leonidas said tiredly, suddenly feeling every bit the octogenarian.       Athena's voice softened. "How are you feeling?"
      "About as well as can be expected. The supplements are wearing off."
      "I was afraid of that," she said grimly. "I can try to tweak your biometrics a little, but this suit only has so much to work with. And I can't mess with your head...no matter how many nanogens you've got crawling around in it."
      Leonidas let out a sigh of his own. "Do what you can. I've got to keep this body going until the mission is complete. That's all that matters." Athena had no reply for that. They moved down yet another long corridor, which finally terminated in a large, transparent elevator of some kind. "Is this the place, Athena?" he asked sharply, shotgun tracking across the open space.
      "Yes," she said over his external speakers. "This lift will take us up to the right level. From there it's only a few hundred meters to the installation's control room."
      "Might as well be a couple hundred klicks," Lawrence muttered sourly, prompting a half-hearted rebuke from Evers. Leonidas couldn't blame the man for being bitter at losing most of his friends and teammates to a bunch of alien gorillas and one colossal freak of nature. He silently shared in the man's pain, and took more than a fair share of it on himself. He'd brought them out here, after all. Their deaths were ultimately on his shoulders.
      Just like Dienekes.
      Just like his family.
      "Let's go," he growled over the command frequency, feeling a twinge at the small of his back as he jumped onto the raised platform of the elevator. Maria and the two Helljumpers crouched beside him, each of them facing a different direction. The formation proved more than valuable when the first wave of infection forms fell on them.
      "Open fire!" Leonidas yelled, unnecessarily, as they all started spraying rounds at the tick-like parasites. The little bastards were everywhere—dropping in clouds so thick he was popping thirty or more with each shotgun blast. He felt a faint shudder in the elevator as something else dropped from above, and slammed his shotgun forward with both arms to smash the wave of infection forms leaping at him. They disintegrated in a mist of yellow gore, and his view of the lift platform was no longer obstructed.
      "Combat form!" Athena shouted, just as the reanimated Brute swung a shattered, pus-dripping limb at his head. Leonidas ducked, feeling the appendage graze his shields as he jammed the muzzle of the shotgun against its mangled torso and pulled the trigger. The combat form was cut in two by the buckshot, and Leonidas finished it with a powerful stomp to the upper half, crushing the infection form inside.
      The others were mopping up the remaining bouncing blobs as he scanned the elevator shaft above for more hostiles. His radar no longer throbbed solid red.
      "Ok, people," he said calmly. "That was the first wave, probably just testing our strength. The next one'll be worse." He glanced at the timeline in his HUD. The Covenant Elites would be nearing their first objective very soon, and Leonidas still wondered whether the aliens would stick to their part of the plan or stab the humans in the back. Giving them the C-7 foaming explosive and detonators might have been a mistake. It was definitely against a shitload of UNSC regulations.
      "How far are we from the top, Athena?" Maria asked over the SQUADCOM as she smashed the last squirming infection form with her boot.
      "Almost there," the smart AI replied. "Lucky for us this installation is nowhere near the size of a ringworld."
      Jackson grunted. "Lucky for us this installation doesn't have a super fucking death ray that can frag everyone in the galaxy." It seemed like Athena wasn't the only one with intelligence on the Halo incident.
      "Good point," she agreed as the lift slowed to a halt with a distant rumble of alien machinery. Leonidas jogged across its glasslike surface to the vaulted doorway beyond. He thumbed rounds into the magazine tube of his shotgun as he went, then ejected the last spent shell and loaded one more.
      Evers and Lawrence stood ready on either side of the entrance, waiting for the Spartans to take point. They had argued against it, of course, but Leonidas was not prepared to lose more men to satisfy their pride. He charged through the doorway into a narrow corridor beyond, skidding to a halt on the far side.
      The installation's control room was a circular walkway ten meters in diameter, connected to the path on which Leonidas stood by a wide, level bridge. A holographic display of great complexity rippled in the center of the walkway.
      "Just like Halo," Athena breathed. "Smaller scale, of course, but that's to be expected."
      "So, do we just…?" Leonidas began.
      "Yes," she responded urgently. Leonidas moved quickly to the holographic display, and uncertainly extended a gauntleted hand. Again, a blue electrical spark arced from his armor to the Forerunner technology as Athena made the transition. Again, the feeling of emptiness took hold of him.
      "Well?" Jackson asked impatiently, scanning the large, shadowed chamber for more Flood.
      "It's incredible," Athena said, her voice magnified tenfold by the control room's hidden speakers. "Even more…liberating…than she said it would be."
      Leonidas frowned. "What about the teleportation—"
      "Oh god," Athena interrupted. "We're too late!"
      "What?" Leonidas asked harshly as Maria stepped to his side.
      An eerie red light rose from somewhere below, cutting straight through the center of the holodisplay. Abject Cipher, it's eye glowing crimson, with Oboe clinging to its spherical metal frame.
      Only Oboe no longer resembled anything human. His body was a tangled mass of puke-green tentacles and throbbing, tumor-like protrusions. Both legs had been severed at the knee, and the tentacles were wrapped around Abject Cipher like a living ball of yarn. Only Oboe's eyeless face, frozen in a rictus of pure horror, remained to identify him as a man.
      "You have failed," the Caretaker said, with none of its past insanity—the tone was more like that of Cerberus. "The Mind is free." Oboe's mouth moved disturbingly with the words, though it was unable to really form them on hideously swollen lips.
      "Athena?" Leonidas asked with a trace of panic in his voice.
      "The Prime Specimen…it's gone," she whispered, sounding horrified. "It's gone."
      "Ok," Leonidas said in a soothing voice as he aimed his shotgun at the Caretaker-Cerberus entity. "Where did it go?" His jury-rigged COM channel with the Covenant Commander crackled.
      "We have secured the reactor cores, Demon. What is your status?" Leonidas took a moment to send the Elite his data feed, hoping the Covenant technology on the other end would allow the warrior to see through his eyes. He heard the alien warrior curse viciously—apparently the two technologies were at least marginally compatible.
      "'Karnamee," Leonidas said over the channel. "It's escaped. Go after it, now!"
      "No use, Richard," Athena said softly. "The teleportation node we used to get in has been closed."
      "You can't open it?" he asked desperately.
      "No, Cerberus is blocking—"
      Maria opened fire on the Flood-infected construct, her rounds missing the metal body completely. Instead, the pinpoint battle rifle fire shredded Oboe's rotting body and the tentacles holding it to the Caretaker. It slid free, and Leonidas caught it with a reflexive shotgun blast on the way down. What was left disintegrated as it plummeted beneath the walkway, falling several hundred meters to a narrow opening that looked out on the central chamber below.
      Abject Cipher's spherical form dropped to the walkway with a clang, its prominent eye losing all light and color. For a moment there was no sound but that of Maria's spent rifle casings plinking to the deck and a reverberating echo of the firing. Leonidas over at her in shock.
      "What are you doing?" he asked, barely restraining his frayed emotions.
      Maria cocked her head. "I don't know." Her words were a pointed echo of his own.
      "I do," Athena said loudly. Her voice was no longer disembodied, instead emanating from the lifeless Caretaker itself. The machine's large eye flickered green, then blue, then amethyst. It finally settled on a glow identical to that of Athena's favorite holographic avatar, and the machine rose from the walkway on its antigravity drives once more. "Tell the Elites to set the detonators for five minutes."
      Leonidas grinned, and he saw Maria swipe a Spartan smile across her own faceplate. "You got it. 'Karnamee…do you read me?"
      A hiss of static flared in his ears, then resolved into the rumbling voice of the Elite. "Yes, Demon. What in the Orbs of Hell is going on up there?"
      "I'll fill you in later. Set the detonators for five minutes and stand by for transit out of here."
      The Elite growled. "You had better be certain, human, for the sake of both our races. 'Karnamee out."
      Leonidas looked back up at Athena. "How's the new ride?"
      "More comfortable than your suit, Richard," she replied softly, spinning in place. "Are you ready?"
      He smiled wryly. "Ready as I'll ever be."
      The sphere floated closer to him, and Athena's shimmering holographic form appeared in front of it, as tall as he. She looked at him with something between sadness and relief in her glowing eyes. "I'm glad." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I will miss you, Richard."
      Leonidas froze, seizing up like a gear that has gone without oil for too long. Pain and fear lanced through his belly. Anxiety flooded through his mind as it processed her words.
      "What are you talking about, Athena?" he asked desperately, though he already knew the answer.
      "I'm not coming with you, Richard," she replied. "I can't."
      Leonidas felt a tear roll down his cheek. "Why?"
      She gave him a sad smile. "I have to overload the reactors just before the detonators go off, or they won't blow. This place, and all the Flood in it, have to be destroyed."
      Maria stepped forward. "The Prime Specimen already escaped, Athena. We can mop up the rest later."
      Athena looked at the Spartan-II and shook her head. "No, we can't take that chance. Cerberus left a...fragment, a clone, of himself behind. I'm keeping it busy, but I don't know how long I can hold it. It's incredibly…virulent. Like the Flood, itself."
      "No," Leonidas said, firmly. "We're not leaving you here. Overload the generators and I'll stay behind to blow them. You'll ride out with Maria."
      Athena reached out with one glowing, elegant hand, as if to caress his face. "I'm sorry, Richard. That's not going to happen."
      "Athena!" he roared, feeling the golden circles of light begin to take him apart.
      The word echoed in his mind as he was swept away.

First cycle, 301 units (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Lunar subsurface mine (Current Depth: 2483 units),
CAULDRON xenoarchaeological site.

      "—We are," 'Karnamee finished awkwardly as his body rematerialized. They had been preparing to return to the upper levels when the glowing rings enveloped them. He glanced over at Undakree warily, then studied their surroundings.
      They were back in the artifact chamber, standing near the edge of the excavation. He turned, realizing they were not alone.
      The human, Leonidas, stood in front of the silent Forerunner teleportation node, staring at it like a statue. The other demon—Spartan, 'Karnamee corrected himself—stood at her captain's side. He watched her place an armored hand on the other's shoulder. Such blatant affection from one's subordinates was not usually permitted among Sangheili, but that did not mean 'Karnamee did not understand it. Or admire it, in a way.
      He had watched all that transpired in the control room, through Leonidas' eyes. It was more than obvious that the human felt he had lost a comrade in arms. Perhaps even a friend. 'Karnamee felt sure that he could never think of an associated intelligence—be that human construct or Forerunner Oracle—in such a way. But the human Captain had, and did, and 'Karnamee could not help but feel pity for the man.
      He could not deny that they were very much alike. Old soldiers, respected by those under their command. Strong, capable, but obviously lonely at the pinnacle of their responsibilities. 'Karnamee rubbed his chest plate thoughtfully. The universe had just become far lonelier for one of them.
      A spike rifle fired, its rounds tearing into Undakree like shooting stars. 'Karnamee spun to face the new threat as he saw his second officer fall, raising his own spike rifle to return fire. The other four Sangheili survivors did likewise, opening up with their plasma rifles and appropriated Covenant carbines.
      The Parasite combat forms rushing toward them did not slow.
      'Karnamee felt his blood begin to boil as all four hearts pumped furiously. He ignited his plasma sword with a roar as the line of combat forms crashed into his Elites. He halved the first Parasite Brute vertically, splashing gore across his shields where it sizzled like putrid meat on a cooking surface. The spike rifle in his other hand tracked another Flood attacker, turning half of its torso into ruin. How the Flood were functioning in the cavern's cold, airless environment was beyond him.
      The battle raged in near silence, due to the lack of atmosphere. It was an eerie experience, and one that had no equal in 'Karnamee's memory. When the humans joined in, mere moments after the fight started, he felt a surge of admiration. They could have considered their part of the bargain fulfilled and left the Elites to fight the Parasite alone.
      But no. They fought with them, still. Honorably.
      He realized too late that the momentary distraction had cost him his life. Bracktanus, though horribly mutated and disfigured by the Parasite infection coursing through his body, still wielded his awesome gravity hammer. The weapon's killing end descended, and 'Karnamee watched the universe slow around him to a trickle of normal time. He thanked his ancestors for making him strong, and for giving him the opportunity to serve the Covenant well. He thanked the Jiralhanae for providing him with a glorious death.
      And Leonidas tackled him to the ground.
      The huge war hammer discharged a sphere of blue energy as it struck, dislodging huge chunks of lunar rock in the place where 'Karnamee had stood milliseconds before. The world still moved in slow motion as Bracktanus whirled on them, frosted eyes empty of coherent thought—or any thought for that matter, save the all-consuming hunger that drove the Parasite to feed. 'Karnamee turned his head to one side and saw Leonidas fire his crude projectile weapon while lying on his back. The spent shell arced away from its receiver too gracefully for even the low lunar gravity.
      More movement attracted his attention, glimpsed between Bracktanus' massive legs. The second Spartan reached down to snatch the hilt of Undakree's plasma sword at a full run. She leapt into the air behind Bracktanus, igniting the plasma sword in a flash of light and color that not even the crawling passage of time could slow. 'Karnamee brought around his own blade—felt it drag through the air with agonizing delay—as the Spartan took hold of the gravity hammer's shaft with one hand and cut down into Bracktanus' body with the other.
      Reality snapped back to its former pace as their two glowing plasma blades met in the center of the infected Brute's torso. The shock of the impact made 'Karnamee's entire arm go numb to the shoulder. Bracktanus' upper half slid down and away from his massive hips, trailing gore despite the cauterization of the angular, bisecting wound. The gravity hammer slipped from his suddenly limp fingers—fingers that were no longer controlled by the incinerated infection form in his hollowed chest cavity—and tumbled silently across the lunar rock.
      Arco 'Karnamee lunged to his feet with a roar of triumph, decapitating another combat form and kicking its still-fighting torso away. The rest of the Parasite had fallen under concentrated fire from the humans and his Elites, though only two of the latter had survived the mad rush of putrid bodies. 'Karnamee turned to the female Spartan with proud fire in his eyes.
      "You," he said heatedly, causing the armored human to pause uncertainly, "are the enemy…of my enemy!" The female stood there for several agonizing moments, as rigid as a block of his homeworld's native stone.
      Then she nodded.

0513 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
En route to OAKENSHIELD facility Bravo,
Beneath Shackleton City, Luna.

      "We need to move faster, Mr. Abrams," Bivins said calmly as he took a survival kit from the man's free hand. The other was held tightly by Maria-062's daughter, Elena.
      "We're going as fast as we can, Corporal," Valentin Abrams replied tartly. "Is there a particular reason we should be hurrying? Surely this deep underground—"
      "Is not deep enough," Bivins interrupted. "If the Covenant decide to start orbital bombardment. I'm not taking the chance of being caught between the city and the bunker, so we hurry. Clear?"
      Abrams' mouth closed with a nearly audible snap, and he nodded. Bivins did not intend to be as stern as his words had come out, but the stress was beginning to wear on him.
      "How are you doing, Miss Abrams?" he asked Elena in what he hoped was a gentler voice.
      "I'm fine," she replied, sounding far too calm for her age. "I can go faster if you want."
      Bivins smiled. "I'm sure you can, Miss Abrams. We'll get there soon enough." He looked up to see Valentin smiling dryly at him. "What?"
      Abrams chuckled. "She can probably run faster than either of us, Corporal."
      Bivins grinned. "If she's anything like her mother, I believe it." He looked down at the young girl. "How 'bout a little bet, eh? If you can get to the end of this corridor before I do, you can eat half of my rations."
      She smiled up at him sweetly. "Throw in the other half and you've got a deal."
      "Ok," Bivins agreed with a chuckle, "you got it. Now—hey!" he squawked as the girl tore off, passing the lead Helljumper before he could get out another word.
      Valentin laughed at his back as he took off in pursuit.
      "Like mother, like daughter," Bivins grumbled with a curse as he pounded down the corridor.
      This mission really blows.

0513 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
In pursuit of Flood Prime Specimen,
Lunar subsurface mine.

      Leonidas clenched his jaw as he rode the resuscitated lift up to the surface. The two remaining Elites under 'Karnamee's command had covered the distance on climbing pads, reaching the deactivated elevator faster than any of the others could. Luckily, the rig had emergency backups, though it was doubtful the batteries would last long enough to reach the mining complex proper. Leonidas was just thankful they'd been able to talk the aliens through the process of bringing the lift back online.
      The frustrating delay had made him miss Athena's wizardry with computers. She might have been able to restore main power to the facility from below.
      "Are you sure it's still ahead of us?" Maria asked over the SQUADCOM.
      Leonidas nodded, playing his armor's lamps across the wall of the mine shaft. Large, jagged holes had been punched into them, and recently by the look of it. The Flood Prime Specimen must have simply scaled the sheer lunar rock, using its powerful tentacles like pitons.
      "It must be heading for the surface complex," Maria continued. Commander 'Karnamee turned toward her at that, obviously taking advantage of the COM link they had given him—another severe breach of protocol. She looked upward, and Leonidas could imagine the worry lines creasing her forehead.
      Jackson put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll intercept before it gets out of here. The nearest significant population center has to be…three or four hundred klicks away, at least."
      "Three hundred and sixty-seven, to be exact," Maria replied darkly. "Shackleton City."       Leonidas heard the suppressed pain in her words—pain, and fear, for her family. It was a particular agony he could identify with, and one that he shared, though the loved ones were not his own.
      Maria sighed. "With the lead it's got on us, and the pace it's obviously moving at…I don't know how we're going to catch up."
      The Elite rumbled deep in its throat. "Do not worry, Spartan. I may have a solution to our problem." The two humans stared at the Covenant warrior in surprise as the lift jerked to a halt. They had made it to the top.
      The lift shuddered as they disembarked, then the status lights on its control panels flickered and died, and the emergency clamps engaged inaudibly.
      Just in time, Leonidas thought with an inward sigh of relief.
      They stepped through the connecting tunnel, into the open chamber that had served as CAULDRON's surface control center. That is, until the Covenant blasted their way in and killed everyone manning it. Leonidas couldn't help the vicious glare he shot in 'Karnamee's direction. His glare turned into a look of contemplation as he examined the latest injury done to the complex.
      "It must've ripped out the seals," Evers muttered. "Damn, that thing is strong."
      Leonidas nodded as he stepped across the mangled hatch cover in question, staring into the darkness of the ore capillary tunnels beyond. "Almost like it knows where it's going," he murmured to himself. The capillaries had been originally used to transport ore from collection sites spread across the lunar surface. Straight lines were faster and more efficient than carting or flying it over broken terrain, and the low gravity allowed large quantities of ore to be moved at one time.
      And the capillaries fed straight into old mining facilities beneath Shackleton City.
      He swore viciously, then looked back at the others. "If anyone has an idea to contribute, now would be the time." He frowned, not seeing 'Karnamee's two Elites. "Where are your warriors, Commander?" he asked, this time letting a hint of threat carry in his voice.
      'Karnamee chuckled. "I sent them to retrieve the solution to our problem. Or should I say…solutions?" He waved a hand toward the breach in the ceiling, which erupted in blue-white plasma fire as two Covenant ground vehicles crashed through. The Ghosts drifted lazily to the floor, guided skillfully by their drivers so none of the soldiers standing below would be crushed.
      Leonidas felt his anger melt into astonishment as the two Elites dismounted. He cast 'Karnamee an approving glance as he stepped forward, running a hand down the nearer Ghost's sleek purple fuselage.
      "We will pursue the Parasite, Captain Leonidas," 'Karnamee continued. "Though I fear these Ghosts can carry only two warriors each, and our pace will be greatly diminished by such a load."
      Leonidas grinned, sitting astride the alien vehicle. The controls looked straightforward enough. "It's a damn sight better than nothing, Commander." He looked at Maria. "Need a ride, Petty Officer?" She swiped two fingers across her faceplate and jumped onto the elongated seat behind him. The Ghost's undercarriage sank, striking the floor before it rose again on beleaguered anti-grav drives.
      'Karnamee jumped onto his own Ghost, then turned in the seat and looked back at the two Helljumpers and his own Elites. "Vras, Esar, you will call for extraction. Ensure that the humans Evers and Lawrence are not detected by the Phantom's sensors." The two Elites growled in protest but were instantly silenced by 'Karnamee's raised hand. "I have made my decision. You will carry the tale of this hunt back to our people. You will tell it exactly as it occurred, leaving nothing out. Clear?" The two Elites nodded reluctantly, clacking their mandibles. Both slammed armored fists against their chest plates in salute. 'Karnamee looked at Jackson expectantly. "Well, human?"
      Jackson blanched, looking to Leonidas for help.
      "What's wrong, Jackson?" Leonidas asked with a chuckle. "Afraid he'll bite?"
      'Karnamee roared with laughter, activating his Ghost's power plant.
      "N-no, sir," Jackson said gruffly. "Just didn't expect to be riding piggy-back with a Covie. Ever." He strode stiffly over to the Commander's Ghost and climbed aboard. The man was obviously unhappy with the arrangement. Leonidas couldn't blame him.
      "Captain…" Evers said, sounding even more disturbed than Jackson. "What about us? You really expect us to stay here with these—"
      "I do, Sergeant," Leonidas interrupted. "Somebody's got to keep an eye on them until their ride gets here. You up to the job, Marine?"
      Evers and Lawrence looked from Leonidas to the Elites, standing to the side with bemused postures, then back at their superior. Lawrence gulped, nervously, as Evers nodded. "Aye, sir."
      "Good man," Leonidas said warmly, testing the throttle of his Ghost. He looked over at 'Karnamee. "Lead the way, Commander."
      'Karnamee nodded brusquely, then took off across the rubble-strewn floor, prompting a panicked grunt from Evers. The Ghost bounced once as it went over the lip of the ruined hatchway, then disappeared into the darkness of the narrow capillary beyond. Leonidas sent his Ghost screaming after it. He felt Maria's arms tighten around his midsection.
      "Are you sure you know how to drive this thing?" she asked tautly.
      "Absolutely," he replied, scraping the Ghost's wing-like front end against the tunnel's left wall in a shower of sparks.
      "Are you sure Evers and Lawrence are going to be okay with those Elites?"
      Leonidas grinned cheerfully. "Absolutely."
      Maria sighed. "And by that you mean not at all, right?"


0710 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
OAKENSHIELD facility Bravo,
Beneath Shackleton City, Luna.

      "Damn," Bivins muttered grumpily as he sat on a supply crate. "Every freaking time…" he trailed off, watching the Abrams girl eat her rations.
      Formerly his rations.
      "What?" one of the men from his newly minted squad asked with a laugh.
      "Nothing, Private," Bivins growled. "Just a bad habit of mine."
      "Right," the Marine replied, returning to his card game. Bivins scanned the crowded main chamber of the bunker, critically. Hundreds of people already occupied the space, and there was room for thousands more. Why the brass hadn't started packing 'em in like cattle was obvious—a murderous stampede could erupt if just one civvie panicked.
      Bivins stood, stretching sore muscles with a grimace as he considered the layout of the structure. The bunker had once been a mining complex of some kind, buried thousands of meters below the city. The Corps of Engineers must have had a hell of a time retrofitting it for shelter duty.
      Let's hope they did a good job, he thought sourly, eyeing the card game.
      "Alright, boys," he said loudly to the knot of Marines. "Deal me in."

0713 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Subsurface ore capillary J827-B,
Junction 402.

      "Which way?" Jackson asked, eyeing the fork in the narrow tunnels.
      Leonidas cast his own critical glance at the junction, studying the floor, walls, and ceiling for any sign of the creature's passage. They'd spotted scrapes and gouges similar to the walls of the CAULDRON mine shaft many times. The Flood seemed to be propelling itself down the capillary by its tentacles, letting its body drift. The method was extremely efficient—they hadn't caught up with the monster yet.
      "How far are we from Shackleton?" he asked Maria.
      "Eighty kilometers. We're making good time," she replied after a moment. The woman had had the presence of mind to download detailed schematics of the lunar installations near and around the south pole—something Leonidas hadn't even thought about. The capillary system had branched off countless times since they left CAULDRON, and only the occasional sign of the Flood's destructive progress had kept them on the right track.
      In other words, they'd been lucky. Until now.
      "Ok, we'll split up—" he broke off with a grimace, doubling over the controls of his Ghost. His insides twisted violently, muscles writhing like snakes under his skin. Waves of agony worse than anything he had felt before burned from the inside out, and his mind was adrift in their hot embrace. He saw stars, and started to slide off the Ghost. Only Maria's strong, reassuring grip kept him in his seat.
      "Are you okay?" she shouted into his ear, sounding genuinely concerned.
      Leonidas nodded, saying nothing as he struggled to shunt the pain to the back of his tortured mind. The agony transfixing his guts never subsided, but at least he was able to think clearly again.
      Control the pain, you son of a bitch! Channel it into something else!
      Determination. Anger.
      "Do you want me to drive?" Maria asked, cautiously.
      He shook his head. "I'm fine. 'Karnamee!" he shouted to the Elite, who turned his elongated head toward them. "You have the tunnel layout?"
      'Karnamee nodded. "Yes, Spartan."
      "Good. Take the right tunnel and meet us at the primary complex beneath the city…it should be a dead end. The bastard's been heading in that direction for the past half hour."
      "Very well," 'Karnamee responded, kicking his Ghost into motion. Jackson remained silent, though Leonidas could imagine what was running through the spook's mind: I'm alone, in the dark, with a three meter tall alien who wants to annihilate my species. Shit.
      "Are you sure you're okay, Captain?" Maria asked persistently.
      "Yeah," Leonidas replied through gritted teeth as he punched the Ghost's throttle. "I'm just…getting old." He grimaced and accelerated, scraping the vehicle's undercarriage on the tunnel floor.

0804 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
OAKENSHIELD facility Bravo,
Beneath Shackleton City, Luna.

      Bivins thought the first rumble was a Covenant orbital strike on the city. After the second impact, he realized the sound wasn't coming from above. It sounded like a gong, with the mallet being struck against one of the bunker's metal walls.
      Biggest damn mallet I ever heard.
      The civilians around him were starting to panic, as evidenced by the fearful looks on their faces. The crowd of people had begun to edge away from the metal bulkhead, and Bivins shouted for his Marines to form a protective circle around Valentin and Elena Abrams. He pointed his battle rifle at the sound, simultaneously calling for backup on his COM, as the center of the bulkhead began to glow.
      First it was cherry red, then orange, then white hot. Something was melted through the damned wall, and he couldn't imagine what that something might be. The bunker had been reinforced, and totally cut off from the abandoned mining tunnels around it. Whatever it was, it was chewing through several meters of poured concrete and titanium.
      "Impossible," Bivins breathed as he watched a glowing shard of bulkhead fall free from the rest of the wall. Stress fractures had spread across the surface, themselves leaking droplets of molten metal.
      The mallet struck a final blow, caving in the bulkhead with a shrieking hiss of tortured, superheated metal, and a Covenant Brute jumped through. Or rather, was thrown through the breach. It was horribly mutilated, and looked nothing like the holovids he'd seen. It clutched a Covenant fuel rod cannon in both swollen paws, and leveled the weapon at the crowd.
      The atmosphere in the bunker started to whistle out through the hole in the bulkhead as Bivins fired. The hail of battle rifle rounds tore into the Brute-zombie, cutting its left arm off at the elbow. The fuel rod cannon's muzzle sank to the floor, and the glob of green energy that seethed out of it vaporized a square meter of the metal plating. Bivins' squad also opened up on the enemy, their weapons tearing chunks of putrid flesh from its hulking form.
      Then the zombie's big brother smashed through the wall.
      Bivins felt his stomach jump into his throat at the site of the creature. It was easily sixteen feet tall, and nearly brushed the bunker's high ceiling. Two tentacles whipped around its disgusting excuse for a body, each holding another Brute-zombie in a crushing grip. The monster roared, air rushing around its form as the bunker's atmospheric controls struggled to compensate. The air was growing thin, and people were scrambling toward the bunker's entrance, fighting to get past each other and away from the attacking nightmare.
      Bivins watched in horror as the monster took several lumbering steps forward and hurled one of its bloated zombies into the middle of the crowd. The corpse exploded with a loud wet bang, battering down everyone nearby with bone-shattering force. A cloud of small, wriggling, tick-like creatures boiled outward, riding the shockwave. They latched onto screaming civilians, digging hideous tendrils into their necks and backs.
      Bivins roared defiantly, turning his battle rifle on the towering monstrosity. It ignored his attack, and Bivins suddenly felt a weird pressure on his mind. A buzzing sensation that crawled against the inside of his skull, trying to force his eyes closed. He suddenly grew tired, feeling the strength drain from his limbs, though he fought the unnatural weariness with all of his might.
      All around, people and soldiers were sinking to the floor. They hadn't yet run out of oxygen in the bunker, thanks to the life support units, but something was rendering them unconscious nonetheless. Bivins swore viciously as his finger failed to squeeze the trigger, a wave of despair crashing over him as the monster stomped closer.
      A purple blur careened through the breach in the bulkhead, crashing into the back of the creature and knocking it on its side. Two man-sized forms jumped free of the blur to roll across the open floor, only one of the silhouettes was anything but man-sized.
      Shit, Bivins thought drunkenly as his vision faded to black. The Covenant are here.

0806 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
OAKENSHIELD facility Bravo,
Beneath Shackleton City, Luna.

      "Shit!" Leonidas shouted as he accelerated after the first Ghost. "He crashed it right through!"
      "Go!" Maria yelled back, gripping her weapon tightly as she prepared to dismount the Covenant vehicle.
      Leonidas tensed, opening the throttle all the way as he pointed the Ghost's rounded nose toward the breach, debris from the obliterated tunnel wall rattling against his shields. A falling slab clipped him hard, eating up thirty percent of their strength. He nearly lost control of the Ghost.
      And they were through.
      Maria jumped off the Ghost, rolling to absorb the shock of impact. Leonidas swung the vehicle's tail around in a skidding arc, pointing it toward a stack of supply crates before leaping free himself. The Ghost crashed through the stack with a cascade of sparks, but somehow didn't explode as he'd seen them do in the holovids. His body hit the deck, rolling and skidding for thirty feet before he collided with a support pillar, his arms and legs folding around it with brutal force.
      His already damaged shields flared and died, only absorbing part of the impact. The rest channeled into his chest, and he felt his internal organs compress against unbreakable ribs. If they hadn't been reinforced by the nanogens within, they surely would have burst.
      He coughed, blood splattering the inside of his visor. Light from his HUD shone crimson through the arterial film. He felt a shudder in the deck as the Flood juggernaut charged, though he couldn't see who it was attacking.
      He reached up with one shaking hand and popped his helmet seals, yanking it free with a desperate jerking motion—just in time to see the Flood throw its other infected Brute at Jackson, knocking him down. The man didn't move, even as the carrier form exploded, launching his unconscious body into the air. The squad of Marines huddling around two civilians opened fire on the infection forms now bounding toward them, and the juggernaut roared again as it turned to face what was killing its smaller brethren.
      Maria struck.
      The Covenant plasma sword in her hand sliced neatly through one of the creature's tentacles, sending the appendage flopping to the deck. The beast roared in rage, whipping its other tentacle at her with incredible speed. She barely managed to dodge the blow, rolling between the Flood juggernaut's legs as Commander 'Karnamee darted in.
      Leonidas got his arms beneath him, struggling to get to his knees. Gaining that, he lurched unsteadily to his feet, leaning against the pillar for balance. Despite their best efforts, Maria and 'Karnamee were faring poorly against the monster. Its flesh was expendable, and it somehow managed to keep its remaining tentacle away from their hissing plasma swords. Leonidas gasped as the strange buzzing noise filled his head, smothering him with its insistent pressure.
      "Sleep," the buzzing called to him.
      "No," he murmured, defying the unsettling weight on his mind.
      "Sleep!" it commanded, and he heard Maria cry out, squeezing the sides of her helmet with both hands. 'Karnamee had fallen to one knee, shaking his head like a man trying to clear water from his ears. The Flood juggernaut roared in triumph and swatted the Covenant warrior aside with its tentacle, sending him careening into another stack of supply crates. Another swipe knocked aside the Marines—including Bivins—like toy soldiers.
      Valentin and Elena Abrams crouched in front of the creature, gripped by pure terror as they stared up at its hideous, gaping maw. It tried to take another step toward them, but stumbled awkwardly.
      Maria had seized it by one leg, her boots screeching across the metal deck as it resisted her tenuous hold.
      'Karnamee tumbled free of the crates, lurching toward the creature in sheer desperation. A tentacle whipped around and the Elite dodged so fast that Leonidas himself could not track the movement . Perhaps it was his failing eyesight, or perhaps 'Karnamee was just that quick…but however fast he actually moved, there could be no doubt that the alien warrior was incredibly strong.
      Both claws were locked on the tentacle, which he had managed to sidestep and grab hold of. 'Karnamee leaned all his weight against the thrashing limb, the shoulder joints of his armor separating with a flash of sparks. He pulled, and the monster twisted sideways. He pulled again, angling around a support pillar identical to the one that had stopped Leonidas. That leverage allowed him to halt the creature's berserk progress toward Maria's family.
      Leonidas retched, vomiting blood as he unclipped a frag grenade from his belt. He set his jaw and pulled the pin, charging toward the monster with all the speed that remained in his legs. His muscles screamed, and time slowed to a crawl as the Flood juggernaut grew nearer. Leonidas grinned savagely, like an old wolf, as he leapt into the air.
      The beast screamed, maw opening to greet him as it pulled 'Karnamee off the floor. The tentacle whipped around in slow motion and the Elite lost his grip. Leonidas ignored the beast's frantic attempt to intercept him, instead focusing on his arm. His hand.
      The hand holding the grenade.
      He felt his vision ebb, darkness swirling at the edges as he drove his arm down like a steam hammer, punching into the soft, stinking gullet of the Flood juggernaut as its tentacle slammed into his back. The limb pulled him tightly against the creature's torso.
      That's right…we go together!
      The juggernaut shuddered, as if hearing his murderous thoughts. It tried to pry him off, and Leonidas feared his spine would snap like a toothpick as he hooked his free arm around the tentacle to hold it fast.
      The grenade exploded.

0808 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Inside Forerunner Containment Facility,
Control Room.

      Athena felt her consciousness slowly begin fade with the installation's failing power supply as the lights around her dimmed. The explosives planted by the Elites had damaged the reactors critically, though not as spectacularly as she had hoped. Her death would be more like asphyxiation than anything else.
      "Like a human," she said aloud, just to hear the sound of her own voice. The remaining energy in the Caretaker's body was just enough to push her near the central console. Athena strained to make the transition one last time, manifesting above the holodisplay as the avatar she had chosen for herself long ago—a robed goddess, breastplate gleaming in the darkness.
      So what if it looked like metal instead of goatskin? Athena was certain her namesake would not begrudge her a little artistic license. What good was goatskin, anyway?
      "What have you done?" Abject Cipher wailed, his form no longer able to rise from the floor.
      Athena sighed. "What I had to do." She felt tired.
      "You have…destroyed…us!"
      Athena grinned, the curve of her lips matching an old man's expression perfectly. "Think of it this way," she took a deep, shuddering breath, her pulsing form the only real source of illumination left in the vast chamber. "I've just spared us years of boredom."
      "For…what…reason?" Abject Cipher said, haltingly. His green eye shrank to a single point of glowing jade and went out—a candle snuffed by the wind.
      "Not a reason," Athena whispered to the darkness. "For him."
      Her light flickered and died.

0808 hours, 20 October 2552 (Military Calendar) /
OAKENSHIELD facility Bravo,
Beneath Shackleton City, Luna.

      Maria watched in horror as Leonidas charged, knowing from the look of pure agony and total determination on his pale face that it was the last of his strength. She felt the Flood's massive bulk shift, saw 'Karnamee yanked around the pylon like a fish on a line. The creature kicked with the leg she held, finally shaking her loose. She flew backward through the air, just as Leonidas' arm plunged into its mouth.
      Maria saw the grenade.
      She rolled away from the monster, lunging toward her family with all the speed she could muster. She managed to scoop them up in both arms and shield them with her body, just as the grenade exploded.
      Fetid gore spattered the deck, the walls, the ceiling. Shrapnel from the frag grenade pinged off her shields, which steamed as the stinking, liquefied remains of the Flood flowed over them. The deck shuddered as the monster's ragged lower half toppled.
      Then all was silent.
      Maria opened her eyes, releasing husband and daughter from her death-grip, and turned to face the carnage. Everything was covered in the Flood creature's repulsive, green-brown innards. 'Karnamee was trying to crawl toward another body that lay motionless beside the juggernaut's twitching legs.
      Maria ran to his side, popping open the leg compartment of her armor that held a med kit. The old Spartan's right arm was simply gone—vaporized by the frag grenade he had stubbornly kept in his hand. Blood gushed from a severed artery, pooling beneath him, and Maria frantically shot an entire canister of biofoam into the gaping wound.
      "Captain? Captain, can you hear me?" Maria fought back a sob. His armor was charred by the blast, pitted by the shrapnel. His face was covered in the Flood's disgusting, clotted blood; she wiped it clean with a strip of gauze. Red blood bubbled at his lips, but his eyes were clear.
      "Leonidas!" she shouted at him.
      His eyes focused on her, wrinkling at the corners as he smiled. "Call…me…Richard. Please." He coughed violently, his back arching. Bivins trotted over, pulling out his own medkit with a grimace as Maria grabbed the old man's scrabbling free hand. She was shocked when 'Karnamee reached around to gently support his head.
      "Richard!" she shouted at him. "Stay with me, damn it!"
      The coughing fit subsided, and his muscles relaxed. He looked into her eyes again, a question forming on quivering, bloody lips. "F-family?"
      She cast a glance back at her husband and daughter, who looked on with worry and panicked expressions. They didn't know it was her.
      Maria reached up and removed her helmet one-handed, tossing it to the side like a useless bucket. Valentin's eyes lit up when he recognized her, and Elena shouted "Mommy!" as she tried to run to her. Valentin held their daughter back, his eyes growing sad, though he didn't cover her face with his hand as Maria expected.
      Leonidas sighed when he heard the little girl's voice, and Maria looked down at him with tears in her eyes.
      She hadn't cried in years.
      "They're safe, Richard," she whispered. "Thank you."
      He grinned, then shook his head ever so slightly. "No," he croaked. "Thank…you." His voice dropped to a whisper and Maria put her ear to his mouth. Boots pounded across the deck as another group of Marines arrived. They pointed their weapons at 'Karnamee, but the Elite ignored them as if they weren't even there. Leonidas' back arched again, and he turned his wandering gaze on Maria. "I couldn't…save…my family," he said in a rattling whisper. "But…" he choked on his words, tears rolling down scarred, wrinkled cheeks.
      "You saved mine," Maria finished for him, smiling warmly. He nodded, his grip on her hand going slack, lips framing a silent word:
      "I will," Maria said softly, anguish filling her voice. "I will, Richard."
      "Be at peace, Demon," 'Karnamee rumbled, reverting to the old term that seemed to hold more significance for his people.
      Leonidas locked eyes with Maria one last time, flashing one last disarming grin. It took her several timeless moments to realize he was no longer breathing. She sobbed, throwing all self control to the winds as she released his hand. She sensed Valentin crouch at her side, felt his arms encircle her neck, and heard comforting words fall from his lips. But none of that could tear her attention away.
      The man called Leonidas, who's true name was Richard, still smiled.


1720 hours, 13 March 2553 (Military Calendar) /
Arlington National Cemetery, District of Columbia,
United States, United Republic of North America, Earth.

      Maria smiled as she watched her daughter skip down the concrete path. That girl would make one hell of a dancer, someday, she was certain. Valentin's hand squeezed her own warmly, and she treasured that small bit of reassurance. This day, her second day back from deployment, was still overshadowed by readjustment to civilian life.
      "Look!" her daughter shouted. "Is that it? The one next to it says 'Halsey.' That must be it!"
      Maria shaded her eyes against the winter sun. "Yes, that's it," she said with a chuckle. She crouched and hugged Elena proudly. "You've got good eyes."
      Elena nodded. "Daddy says I have your eyes."
      Maria looked up at her husband with a wry smile. "Oh he does?"
      "Yes," Elena stated sagely as she pranced across the grass, weaving through a row of headstones without a care. She was so full of life—wrapped up in a child's innocence that completely veiled the stately symbols of death all around her.
      Perhaps that's a better way to approach it, Maria thought as she stepped off the path, her husband at her side. They followed their daughter to what was obviously a newer marker than the rest. In crisp lettering, it read:

                         RICHARD ALLEN BRADE
                          UNSC MARINE CORPS
                               THE GREAT WAR
                              MEDAL OF HONOR
                                  FEB 6 2468
                                 OCT 20 2552

      Maria frowned. Medal of Honor? Someone stepped onto the grass behind them and she reacted instinctively, spinning around to destroy whoever had made the mistake of sneaking up on a Spartan. The solemn faces staring back froze her in her tracks.
      Captain Kim…and Admiral Margaret O. Parangosky.
      Maria tensed, her eyes darting toward her daughter. Elena was completely oblivious to the newcomers' arrival; to the threat that woman posed. Maria had suspected there were other reasons Parangosky let Bivins babysit her family. Other motives.
      The Admiral wanted Elena. ONI wanted her. They always had.
      "No, Petty Officer," Parangosky said, a grim look on her face. "I'm not here for that."
      Maria felt her eyes narrow of their own accord as she nodded stiffly. "Admiral…Captain." Was the woman a mind reader, too? Captain Kim stepped forward with a gentle smile to break the tension, shaking Valentin's hand as he introduced himself. Maria felt her body assume a natural stance of attention that made even the cemetery's tireless statues look shabby. Kim's smile widened into one of his trademark oily grins for a brief moment, then vanished.
      "At ease," he said calmly, shaking her hand. "It's good to see you again, Maria. Before I forget…Commander 'Karnamee sends his regards."
      Maria relaxed her taut shoulders, and Parangosky looked at her strangely for a brief moment before allowing her own rigid posture to melt away. The Admiral stepped to Kim's side, her eyes seeming odd—not cold, as Maria had expected, but tired.
      And very, very old.
      Maria nodded. "I'm glad to hear he survived." She frowned, glancing cautiously at Parangosky. "May I ask why you are here, sir?" She clasped her hands behind her back. Valentin shuffled nervously at her side, as if sensing the tension crackling in the air.
      "We've…come to pay our respects, Petty Officer," Parangosky replied, a bit sternly. Kim simply nodded in agreement, maintaining a poker face.
      Maria set her jaw. "Permission to speak candidly?"
      "Granted," Parangosky almost growled. Almost.
      Maria took a deep breath. "Why? Why keep his identity a secret all those years…only to reveal it now?" She pointed at the tombstone. "Why give him the public burial, the marker, and the medal? Why make your shame public?"
      "Maria…" Kim began.
      "He deserved better," she snapped, cutting him off. Military protocol be damned. Silence reigned for several moments, then a hairline crack appeared in the iron mask that was Parangosky's face. The woman's legendary bitterness was absent as she spoke.
      "Yes, Petty Officer…he did deserve better. And I am to blame." Kim's face mirrored the surprise and shock Maria felt as Parangosky continued. "I…regret…the lack of trust between us. The hatred he must have felt after I shut him away from the world." She sighed. "I won't apologize for it, but please believe me when I say that I do regret it."
      Awkward silence hung in the air like heavy fog and Kim cleared his throat hesitantly before turning to the older woman. "Richard didn't hate you, Admiral," he said softly. "He resented the security measures, to put it mildly...but he never hated you, personally. I know that because he told me, and I'm certain he was being honest." A rueful chuckle. "He was always honest."
      "Yes," Parangosky agreed with a hint of dry humor in her voice. "Honest to a fault." Her grim expression seemed to slip. "Though I find it hard to believe, after all those years…" her voice trailed off as she looked down at the polished white headstone.
      "The Captain is right, Ma'am," Maria said, surprising herself. "I didn't know him long, but I got the sense that Richard never hated anyone but himself, until the end." She glanced at her family, then looked pointedly at Kim. "I think...he was finally able to let them go."
      An expression of relief rippled across the man's heavy features. "I'm glad," Kim said softly. "I'm glad you were with him, Maria. I'm particularly glad he wasn't alone." He looked at Parangosky and reached into a pocket, pulling out a small black case as he stepped closer, squaring off in front of Maria. She snapped to attention once more.
      Old habits die hard.
      "Richard didn't have any living relatives," Kim said. "I think he would have wanted you to have this." He opened the case. Inside sat the United Nations Space Command's highest military decoration: the Medal of Honor. Elena edged closer as Maria took it from Kim's hands.
      "Was that Captain Brade's?" Elena asked curiously.
      Kim crouched in front of her. "Yes, young lady. But I have something else…something he would've wanted you to have." He reached into his other pocket.
      "Me?" Elena asked, her eyes wide as saucers. Maria couldn't help but smile.
      Kim chuckled as he withdrew his hand. "I think Richard kept this to remind him of someone he cared about. Someone he missed a great deal." A small yellow ball sat in his open palm. It was obviously old, and well-worn, but made of that indestructible stuff they used for Pelican landing skids.
      "Thank you," Elena said in a hushed voice. Richard had taken first place in her pantheon of heroes after that day in the bunker, and she accepted the ball with an endearing reverence. "Maybe…" she hesitated. "Maybe it will remind us of him?" Valentin rested his hands on her slender shoulders, smiling proudly.
      Kim nodded. "That's what I was hoping." He straightened and grinned at Maria, who grinned back just as fiercely. Even Parangosky let a small smile slip past her guard. They exchanged salutes, and the two officers turned back toward the concrete path and the vehicle waiting for them.
      Maria looked down at her daughter, who held the gift delicately in both hands. The real significance of the yellow ball was a mystery, but Maria knew instinctively that it had meant something to Richard.
      And that was enough for her.
      "Come on, honey," Valentin said to Elena, taking her by the hand as he smiled at Maria. "Let's give Mommy a few minutes alone."
      Maria smiled back, wordlessly thanking him for understanding. Their footsteps receded into the distance, and Maria stood silently with the black case in her hands. She swept her eyes across the cemetery, taking in row upon row of white crosses that marked the final resting place of many brave men and women. Many heroes, who would never have thought of themselves as such.
      "I know you wouldn't," she whispered. "But it's true. My daughter says so." She stood at attention, calm eyes staring down at the marker. Her arm rose in a slow, deliberate salute that not even an admiral could have earned. Her hand locked, knifelike, as her fingertips brushed her right temple.
      "I know it's true…because you made us believe. And we will remember."
      A cool breeze caressed her face as the sun's dying rays slanted into her eyes. For a fleeting moment she thought she saw a glowing cloud twist into a familiar grin, and heard an old soldier's warm chuckle on the wind.


"Soldiers are citizens of death's gray land,
      Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
      Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
      Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
      They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
      And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
      And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
      And going to the office in the train."

- Siegfried Sassoon