Throughout Citadel space, there are dozens of unactivated relays. The activation of one was a rare occurrence, happening only once or twice a century, and for good reason—the Rachni were once on the other side of an unactivated Mass Relay. Another famous example was the Omega-4 Relay—through which no one had ever returned.

Then, too, there was Relay 314.

It had been activated several years ago, in hopes of finding a garden world, and those hopes were rewarded—there was indeed a pristine planet, ready for colonizing, on the other side.

But things quickly went awry. The first colonizers set up camp, began to construct the capital city—and promptly disappeared without a trace between patrols, several months in. There were no distress signals, no signs of weapons fire, and no survivors. Not a clue.

Another colony was sent, with a large military component, in hopes of fending off whatever had destroyed the small, lightly-defended first attempt. The result was the same. Even with a cruiser hovering in orbit, ready to provide assistance at the slightest hint of trouble, nothing was detected. The sun went down on a prosperous colony, just beginning to sink its roots into the soil.

The sun rose on a ghost town.

Any further attempts were promptly abandoned, and a permanent fleet was put in orbit to ensure that no ships ever rose from its surface—keeping the threat, as it were, from ever entering orbit.

Then, of course, there were the ghost transports. Over the space of a month, the Mass Relay was activated 7 times. Of those 7, 2 were officially recognized. 1 was a pirate, looking for a new hidey-hole. The other 4 had no ship on either end initiating the relay, but they went through all the motions of activation.

Some theorized that it was the Relays, perhaps calibrating after something had slightly altered the path of one of the pair. Most, however, just saw it as ghosts—perhaps the same ghosts that had obliterated two colonies without a trace—finally going to their resting place.

On a possibly related note, many systems reported rumors of 'ghost ships' which blinked into view on scanners for a second, maybe two, and then disappeared without a trace. Again, the accepted explanation was sensor ghosts caused by malfunctioning equipment.

Unfortunately, none of the explanations for either phenomenon was right, and the Citadel was about to encounter something new—something that hid in the shadows and the blackness, never showing its face or drawing attention.

June 21, 2560

Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood, head of the United Nations Space Command and, therefore, the second-most powerful person in human space (after the President of the UEG), frowned again as he went over the latest reports from Operation Red Cobra. The project was only in its infancy, the object which allowed for its creation only found a year ago, but its scope was grand and its impact big. Dangerously big; while its reports offered a gold mine for information and technology developments, the ramifications of exactly where those developments were coming from were extremely worrisome.

At least it wasn't illegal on top of all of his other concerns, but it was a fleeting consolation. If anything from this leaked to anyone, the consequences would be disastrous. Easily several times worse then the SPARTAN debacle and arguably as bad as the Kilo-Five incident.

Luckily, the UNSC Ghost in the Code had finished its stellar mapping and quasar locking (and it had taken quite some time, given with the complete lack of stellar references other than quasars), so the use of Artifact 1-0001 was no longer needed, which made for one less ulcer eating at him.

ONI, despite the recent purges, and Kilo-Five and the subsequent rebuttal of their recent modus operandi, was still a little too independent for his liking. He'd gotten the report on the project the day of its creation, at least (or gotten it at all), which was a step beyond the old ways, but he'd gotten the report proposing its creation—after the first prowler had already been sent through.

With that, it had been too late to cancel it, and he'd allowed it, reluctantly. With the mapping done, however, the artifacts were no longer needed, eliminating the most dangerous moments of compromisation. Now, ships could simply travel directly there.

He signed the report at the bottom, placed his thumb on the scanner, and enunciated, "Terrence Hood." The datapad beeped, accepting his credentials.

And now, with the just-approved batch of Stellar Cartography AI's, shepherded by a new 7th-gen Smart AI, as their survey of the nearby stars began and distances determined, none of the other artifacts would be needed either.

He scrolled to the next report, also a request from Red Cobra. This request, however, was much bigger. And stranger.

"Why on Earth would they want a Phoenix-class?" Surely there was a better option than one of the obsolete former colony ships, converted to planetary assault vessels, which were only still in service because the UNSC was still a largely gutted force! Even then, they were relegated to Insurrectionist suppressal and colony defense, as they were far too old and underpowered even by Covenant-war standards to refit to newer standards. Plans called for them all to be scrapped in the next five years.

He scrolled to their justifications, interested in why ONI would request such an eclectic ship. ONI dealt in the cutting-edge, not the obsolescent. As he did so, he reached back for his mug of early-morning coffee. He'd probably need it—there were a dozen more reports that couldn't wait, and at least a hundred more which he needed to read and sign today. Such were the woes of the supreme administrator in the navy.

The next paragraph made him regret that decision as he promptly spewed out his drink.

"They want to do WHAT?"