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In Death's Grey Land -- Section IV
Posted By: J. D. Ford<fordyman@comcast.net>
Date: 24 July 2008, 10:15 pm

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"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.