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In Death's Grey Land -- Section V
Posted By: J. D. Ford<fordyman@comcast.net>
Date: 1 August 2008, 2:27 am

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"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

20 July 2008

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

- Siegfried Sassoon



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

- Siegfried Sassoon