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In Death's Grey Land -- Section II
Posted By: J. D. Ford<fordyman@comcast.net>
Date: 1 December 2007, 1:58 am

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"HALO: In Death's Grey Land"

J. D. Ford

30 November 2007

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

- Siegfried Sassoon



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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