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In Death's Grey Land -- Section III
Posted By: J. D. Ford<fordyman@comcast.net>
Date: 20 February 2008, 3:32 am

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"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.