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In Death's Grey Land -- Section I
Posted By: J. D. Ford<fordyman@comcast.net>
Date: 20 September 2007, 1:31 am

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"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

19 September 2007

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

- Siegfried Sassoon


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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