Chapter 4

0412 hours, October 23, 2558 (Military Calendar)/Blue Team onboard Pelican Sam's Honor en route to ONI research station Argent Moon

John-117, the Master Chief, was sitting in the cockpit of Blue Team's personally assigned Pelican, coursing the vessel through a very dense asteroid cluster. He was intently studying his helmet, ensuring there wasn't anything wrong with its integrity before the mission. The rest of Blue Team were in the back of the Pelican doing the same with their weapons and armor; standard procedure before any operation they were to commence.

John flipped his helmet over as steadily as he could manage and reminiscently caressed the Smart AI port on the back, solemnly remembering what it once housed.

Cortana had saved his life a little over a year prior when she sacrificed herself on board the Forerunner vessel, Mantle's Approach. Unfortunately, the ship wasn't totally destroyed when he detonated the HAVOK nuclear device. Before silently departing, Cortana revealed that the "heart" of the ship and the Didact's Cryptum had evacuated into slipspace, taking her remaining inactive fragments with it. She had transferred that information when she physically touched him in their last meeting through her temporary physical form.

After the battle and before his debriefing, John silently grieved for her. Captain Lasky of the Infinity had a few words with him and reminded him that despite their duty as soldiers, they were all still human. They weren't machines, something John had once instinctively understood to be truth. Soldiers carried out any orders given to them, and his duty as a Spartan was to protect Humanity no matter the cost, even if it meant self-sacrifice. Spartans were tools, scalpels, puppets to be used in dire conflicts.

But Cortana's sacrifice reminded him of his own fragile humanity. John was willing to sacrifice his life above Earth that day when he detonated the HAVOK. But Cortana saved him from the blast with what little energy she had had remaining, taking his sacrifice away, and replacing it with her own.

This act of humanity showed John that despite being a soldier, his duty was to survive and continue being human. Remembering those who laid down their lives for him and under him. Ensuring those lives were to not be wasted, but spent. And ultimately, to ensure his own life is spent accordingly, when the need arises. Carry on the legacies formulated by others, and give hope to those to come. A hope for a future free from chaos and tyranny.

John focused his efforts on protecting all those who needed liberty with his team and closest friends: Fred-104, Kelly-087, and Linda-058. The four of them had known each other since they were 6 years old; when they were conscripted into the Spartan-II program. They eventually formed Spartan Blue Team together, and John considered them his only family.

Blue Team was a legend within the UNSC. It wasn't just due to John's actions; but all of their accomplishments and many successful operations, which was the highest from any fireteam in any branch of the UNSC. With the team reunited after John had been rescued, they underwent classified missions under orders from the Office of Naval Intelligence in order to keep the peace in the still reconstructing galaxy.

It was non-stop fighting and conflict for John and his companions. He knew he was beginning to show signs of long term battle fatigue; they all were. He had developed a slight shake of his hands, and rarely opened up even to his companions over personal or conventional matters. In the past this wasn't much of an issue, but the constant handling out of missions ONI was conducting to Blue Team distracted him from his personal priorities in order to amend these unusual characteristics.

Sometimes, he wished he had taken Lord Hood's offer of going on leave. But he knew this wasn't possible for him and the rest of Blue Team. They were simply needed, and all his life John had done only one thing: hunt those who disrupt reality, and protect the innocent.

Blue Team's current mission was a search and rescue operation. They were sent to investigate a missing ONI research station, Argent Moon, which had gone missing nineteen months ago.

A small group of Jackals had discovered the station a week ago and sold it to the Covenant. ONI was notified of this transaction, and Blue Team was ordered to investigate. They were tosecure the scientists onboard if any remained, and learn why the vessel strayed from its course and why it had cut all contact from ONI. And above all else, prevent the Covenant from stealing its information, whether that be locations to other UNSC or ONI facilities, other colonies, and most importantly, the research stored onboard.

The Spartans had been given a personal Pelican a year prior, which was outfitted with a unique slipspace engine that gave them the capability of traversing to their destination in a relatively quick amount of time. Together they had named the vessel Sam's Honor, in remembrance of Samuel-034's sacrifice.

This mission was spearheaded and endorsed by the UNSC Infinity, under the command of Captain Thomas Lasky. They had left the vessel six days prior before it left to undertake a classified mission of its own. Their mission's details were kept secret from Blue Team, and as for why, John never questioned. He had another objective to carry out and was only interested in his operation.

John put his helmet on and notified the Infinity on their approach through the Pelican's slipspace wavecom datalink.

"Sierra-117 to Infinity, Blue Team has located Argent Moon. There are signs of hostile activity, but she's still here," he said reassuringly.

When they had arrived near the station a few moments ago, they had detected a small Covenant cruiser nearby. The Spartans planned and equipped accordingly to deal with a large force inside the station. If things went south, they may have to destroy the station after recovering any surviving scientists and securing the necessary intel.

A communications officer responded to John's observation. "Copy that 117. Eliminate all hostiles. Secure Argent Moon. You may deploy when ready."

"Affirmative Infinity. 117, out," John confirmed. He initiated manual control of Sam's Honor and slowed the Pelican's momentum, while simultaneously cutting off the engines. He turned the Pelican around, "parking" it in place so that its bay door faced the Argent Moon. John got out of his seat and stepped out into the back of the cabin through the door.

"Here you go," Kelly said, handing him his MA5D Assault Rifle.

"Thanks Kelly," he said, nodding in her direction. "Everyone ready?" he asked Blue Team.

"Affirmative," Linda said with a quick nod. She turned around and pushed the bay door release. The bay had previously been de-pressurized to compensate for the EVA conditions outside.

John stepped ahead, but was cut off by Fred. His friend looked at him, concerned.

"You good?" Fred asked. This mission was not the usual combat heavy operation. It was quiet in their book. But, it was another mission after another. John knew his friends were worried about his well-being. He too was looking out for them as well, but he was in the spotlight.

John curtly nodded, hiding his anxiety. He stepped in front of the three of them, and they all initiated their rear thrusters.

"Blue Team," he said sharply. "Fall out."

The four Spartans together jumped out of the Pelican into space, and as one synchronized unit, utilized their thrusters to navigate through the remaining asteroids. The Pelican was parked in a reasonably hidden position, away from Covenant eyes. Blue Team, now side by side, flew towards Argent Moon. Their entry point would be a port side observation window, as all other official entry points were most likely guarded by Covenant. The Spartans un-holstered their weapons and fired at the transparent aluminum panel, using the thrusters on the soles of their feet and backs to counteract the force from the weapons. The window, weakened and warped from sustained fire, fractured as they barreled through.

Apparently, there had been several Elites in the room, who then turned around in shock from the sudden appearance of the four Spartans. Blue Team quickly landed, surrounded by the aliens. The Elite directly in front of them activated its Energy Sword and began to advance on Fred, but it and the others were so concerned on killing them that they had forgotten to activate their magnetic underfoot gear. Consequentially, they were sucked through the exposed window into the void of space before the emergency shutters took its place. Blue Team now stood in the middle of the room, securing the area before advancing into the station.

Fred-104 and the rest of Blue Team ventured forward into the very ominous and desolate station. The lights were dimmed, and the openness of the rooms and hallways gave off a disorientating sensation.

"What do we know about Argent Moon?" he asked.

Linda responded to his query. "ONI research station. Went dark nineteen months ago. Last week, Kig-Yar scavengers found it, and sold the find to Jul 'Mdama's people."

The Master Chief chimed in, stating their objective at hand. "We clear the Covenant, and return this station to ONI."

Fred walked behind the Chief down a ramp before a large window overlooking what seemed like a vessel under construction. John had asked Blue Team to call him 'Chief' from now on. As for why, he simply stated he wanted to keep things professional. And since the Chief was the leader of Blue Team, it only made sense from a practical viewpoint.

But despite their reputation as extremely disciplined Spartans, they were as close to each other as siblings. In the past, Blue Team kept up the formality around others and during most missions, but earlier in the past year, they had begun to designate each other by their names. Recently however, John decided against this exclusively to him. Fred was seriously starting to worry about John's mental stability.

He had grown distant from them. Linda concurred, but Kelly, arguably the closest to John, kept saying that he was fine. Fred knew she was starting to have doubts though.

They didn't want to lose him again.

Kelly provided their destination. "Fastest route to retrieval is to seize Central Control. Eliminate hostiles between here and there, then deactivate gravity and life support systems."

Classic Kelly, always thinking of the fastest method effectively possible. She was the fastest Spartan, not only physically, but mentally as well.

"Ship's data center is just ahead," Linda added. "We can pull down Argent Moon's schematics there."

The four of them took a left and walked along an overhang that curved around to the right. In the hangar bay below, the large gutted vessel sat, shining grey in the gloomy blue and white light.

The Chief took note of the ship. "Looks like they were designing a new stealth class vessel."

"They lost years of expensive R&D with this station," Kelly said.

Fred questioned the Argent Moon's disappearance. An isolated station of this importance to ONI that carried such a precious payload couldn't have become lost this easily. And then never found until nineteen months later.

"So this station was just drifting?" he asked, befuddled. "For two years?"

"Apparently," shrugged Linda.

"How's an asset this big go missing for that long?" Fred pushed.

"Its location wasn't consistent with expected drift patterns."

"Meaning?"

"Someone didn't want it to be found and sent it in a direction no one would expect," Linda figured.

Blue Team continued along the overhang and walked up a ramp. To their left, several skeletons of the once stationed scientists lay crumpled on the ground.

"What do we know about the experiments they were doing here?" Linda asked, crouching next to one of the skeletons, examining it. She was worried.

"We don't. And we don't ask," the Chief said suddenly, cutting off the conversation.

Fred noticed the anxiety in John's voice and attempted to lighten up the mood. "I'd keep my helmet on tight just the same," he said light heartedly.

Nonetheless, Kelly called them all over to a nearby terminal. The terminal contained some recordings of Argent Moon's smart AI, Rooker:

"Difficult to record this. We now have 100% fatality rate from the Asteroidea accident. Those near the accident site died almost instantly. Liquidized from the inside out. They were the lucky ones….It was vaporized and quickly entered the air system. It slowly spread through the rest of the station. Symptoms took minutes or hours to arrive, depending on distance from epicenter. None of the crew escaped its effects….Following the massive failure of containment protocols, I'm making the decision to quarantine the ship.

I've set a course that will keep it clear of any inhabited systems, and jettisoned what remains I can into open space….This is Rooker, ship A.I. Argent Moon. Recording this as a warning to any ONI personnel who try to reclaim Argent Moon. Her air is not safe for humans to breathe. I repeat, her air is unsafe.

I am now six months past-past my expiration date. It's clear that I…..that I can't manage this station any l-longer. I never could, and so I am initiating final dispensation."

The recordings finished. Blue Team looked at each other in shock. There were no survivors on this station, and Fred's comment about keeping their helmets on drove home. Fred noticed the Chief slightly shuffle at Rooker's fate.

"Move towards the data center Blue Team," he ordered. Was he discomforted by Rooker's suicide?

They walked down several ramps to their left, carefully avoiding the bodies strewn about, and walked through the threshold leading to the data center. When the door opened however, they immediately took evasive action. Two Grunts were standing at the computer terminals, complaining about their work having to download the ship's files.

The Chief signaled to Fred to take the Grunt on their right, while he took the one on the left. The two Spartans silently sneaked up behind the Grunts and took them out with a stab to their stumpy little necks.

The Chief ordered Linda and Kelly to go through the door to their right when he gave them the signal over comms. He motioned to Fred to follow him through several ducts in the ceiling that lead to the adjacent room. They could hear several Elites talking to some Grunts ahead. Fred found several openings within the ducts, and he and the Master Chief dropped down, surprising the Covenant below. Fred fell on top of an unsuspecting Elite Warrior and swiftly snapped its neck. Chief gave the signal to Kelly and Linda, who flanked the Covenant from the sides. The aliens were surrounded, and were quickly dispatched with several grenades and rounds from Linda's superb sniping.

Suicide Grunts entered the room from a ramp ahead, running towards the Spartans with active plasma grenades in their hands. Fred shot one in the head with his M395. The body fell limp, tripping several Grunts, and a violent chain reaction of exploding plasma and methane resulted in the aliens disintegrating, and the ground and surrounding terminals to be melted and scorched. Molten metal spewed everywhere; an unlucky Jackal was smothered in slag, its flesh melting and cooking onto the floor.

Another Elite Warrior turned the corner, barking orders at its accompanied Jackals. Kelly, with her shotgun and thrusters, stormed the Elite, who drew its Energy sword. Fred and the Chief lobbed several frag grenades right under the surprised Jackals' feet, who were torn into bits when they detonated.

Kelly popped several shots off at the Elite, but its shields simply flared. It viciously swung its sword vertically at the Spartan, who spun around like a blur to the Elite's sword arm side and inverted its second knee with a hard kick. Its shields depleted, the Elite crumpled to the ground, and didn't have the chance to defend itself before facing an eight gauge slug to the skull.

With the area clear, Blue Team walked down a short hallway in the back of the room. The door opened as they approached, and they had arrived at their destination.

"Data Center," the Chief confirmed.

Linda provided the means of accessing information from the station. "We've got a complete set of datasec keys for this station. We should be able to pull down Argent Moon's schematics and find a path to Central Control."

They walked forward to a circular holographic data terminal centered in a curved structure. The Chief transferred the datasec keys into the terminal simply by touching the lock pad, and a detailed holographic image of the Argent Moon appeared in front of them. Fred noticed the schematics downloading into his suits systems on his HUD.

"I've accessed the data banks," the Chief said. "Grab the data and current population map."

Fred captured the required intel and investigated the contents. "Should be a straight shot to Central Control through the assembly bay ahead," he started. "There are still Prowlers in the hangar bays... Nobody from ONI got out of here alive, did they?"

Despite the information Rooker had provided them with earlier, Fred still hoped someone had at least escaped with their life before the containment breach got out of hand.

"No," Linda curtly said.

"Let's go," the Chief said hurriedly. Fred could tell he wanted to be off this station as quickly as possible. This mission truly wasn't like the others, and there was a mysterious and unsettling feeling surrounding the station; almost as if it didn't welcome their presence. But ONI needed them here.

But, why them? Fred understood the importance of this mission, and they were certainly qualified for the job, but this could have been handled by any other capable Spartan fireteam. This mission seemed too simple for Blue Team. Fred was reminded of them being hurried out the doors of the Infinity before it went on its classified mission. They were the ones who undertook missions that were heavily classified. So why were they left in the dark and thrust into this particular operation?

They walked up some ramps and took a right. Large windows to their left overlooked the hangar bay with the stealth vessel. An elevator nearby led down to its base, with a large window exposing the view below.

They boarded the elevator and the Chief made its descent.

"Central control is straight across this bay," Fred explained looking down at the obstruction, taking note that Blue Team would have to enter the salvaged stealth vessel.

"Everything's ripped up," Linda observed.

"They must be stripping that experimental ship for parts," Kelly said, referring to the Covenant.

Fred added onto this. "Scavengers. Taking what supplies they can find. The Covenant's war against the Arbiter must not be going well."

The Covenant had been fighting the Swords of Sanghelios for a while now, trying to gain control over Sanghelios, the Elites' homeworld. Thel 'Vadam, an old acquaintance of the Chief, had been the Covenant Empire's last Arbiter before he defected against the Prophets in the Great Schism. This event would eventually lead to the downfall of the Covenant Empire, securing Humanity's victory over the alien allegiance. Thel created the Swords of Sanghelios afterwards, and allied his remnant with the UNSC. Recently, with having to fight a two front war against both the UNSC and the Swords, the Covenant remnant led by Jul 'Mdama had been getting desperate for resources and troops. No thanks to Blue Team on certain matters of course.

"Jul 'Mdama is a lot of things," Linda began, referring to Jul's opportunistic ideals, which had been falling apart recently. "But he's no prophet."

The elevator came to a stop at the base of the stealth vessel. Blue Team filed out over a small bridge and saw their path blocked before them. Fred noticed a fragile vent large enough for them to pass through. "Most direct route to the shipyard is through the wall ahead," he said, highlighting the vent on his HUD.

"Let's charge through," Chief ordered. Fred sent him a green confirmation light to his HUD.

With the Chief at the helm, the four Spartans ran towards the vent with their thrusters charged, and thrusted into the vent, shattering it to pieces. They were falling, and when they got nearer to the ground, they slowed their descent and performed three ground pounds onto the frightened Grunts below. Linda hovered in the air, taking down four Elites with her sniper rifle. Crates and methane tanks went flying into the Covenant soldiers ahead, knocking them down and incapacitating some. Jackals with upgraded Storm rifles on ledges far ahead rained plasma fire down on Blue Team's position.

Fred took them out with his DMR, but an Elite flanked him on his left. Its head blew off and it fell limp to the ground from a round originating from Linda's sniper rifle. He took to the right and underneath some hollow storage compartments and used those as cover. His shield alarm was ringing as he had taken several plasma rounds from the Jackals. Four more Elites joined the frenzy, but were hailed down by the Chief's MA5D. They were soon finished off by none other than Linda.

Kelly, with her quick reflexes, dodged several plasma rounds and clambered up some crates ahead, flanking the Covenant onto their level from their left. The Chief pushed forward up the ramp, with Linda providing support fire from the back. Fred tossed a frag grenade into a group of Grunts, taking them down. Eventually, the Spartans met up at the top of the stairs and platforms, clearing out any remaining Covenant along the way.

Despite being outnumbered, an Elite Zealot ambushed them with an energy sword drawn, and charged Fred. He quickly acted by thrusting under the Elites swing, perfectly timed, stabbing it in the leg. The Zealot's weakened shields flared and broke. He simultaneously tripped the Elite onto the ground from its forward momentum, and jumped onto the Zealot's back. He stabbed it in the neck, spewing purple blood that smelled of tar.

It was his unique way of taking down Zealots; or any other Elite with a sword for that matter. He had perfected it to the point that it was taught to highly trained individuals amongst the Spartan-IVs. However, it wasn't without its faults. If the Spartan was in a position to not trip the Elite, it was much harder to pull off.

Blue Team found an experimental Hydra MLRS-1 HGL inside an open crate at the top of the stairs. The weapon was the newest in the line of the UNSC's guided micro-missile launcher system, with an upgraded smart link suite and redefined rifled design. It housed its ammunition within a revolving cylinder; the missiles were powerful enough to even take down a Spartan in two hits. Fred took the weapon on orders from the Chief, and holstered it on his back.

Ahead of them was the large, long assembly bay of the stealth vessel, filled with crates and platforms. These provided the many Jackals and Grunts headed their way with suitable fire positions and cover. Linda took to the ramp to the right, heading upstairs to the platform directly above, once again taking the role of silently and skillfully sniping targets safely from afar.

Fred ran behind a wall to his left, and aided Linda with fire from his DMR. The Chief took to a tubular hallway on their left, while Kelly pushed up the middle below with her shotgun.

"Push through this resistance and reach Central Control!" Kelly called out, taking down three Grunts ahead of her. Fred popped off shots from his DMR behind his already smoldering wall of cover. He moved down the hallway the Chief took and continued providing cover fire for Kelly. The Chief had dropped to a floor below him and mowed down several Jackals jumping about from crate to crate with his Assault Rifle. The area was clear for the moment, and Linda went platform to platform for a new vantage point in the middle of the hangar. Fred moved to the far right of the room, atop several open storage crates.

Ahead of the Spartans, more Jackals and Grunts came out of the far back. Several of the Jackals carried Carbines, and the radioactive projectiles showered Fred's shields, depleting them.

He realized that if he and the others earned a rupture in their suits from enemy fire, the air of Argent Moon would leak into the systems, bypassing the filters, and undoubtedly kill them. He ordered himself to be more cautious in this environment.

He instantly took to cover inside the crate he was standing on, hearing Linda's sniper rifle crack three times eliminating the Jackals. The Chief was far above him on the left of the hangar, and Fred saw him jump off the ledge he was on and ground pound an entire group of clustered Grunts who had been focused on Kelly. She strafed in and out of cover like a blur, her adversaries always missing their mark.

Fred exited cover and burst though some vents in the wall ahead. He, Kelly, and The Chief pushed through to the back of the room, where an Elite Warrior stood amongst a group of Jackals, Storm Rifle drawn.

Kelly took down the nearest Jackal with her Shotgun and ran up some stairs to the left, drawing the fire of the Elite. Fred took out the Hydra launcher and locked onto the Warrior, firing several missiles. They struck home, and the Elite disappeared into purple mist; several pieces of burnt, smoldering armor lay strewn about. The Chief lobbed some grenades behind the remaining Jackals, and they too were dead.

"Nobody is left standing," noted Fred, taking a breather with the others. "Let's move on towards Central Control." They waited on Linda to meet up with them before venturing forward.

Despite the long fight they had just encountered, the combat seemed too easy. Then again, Blue Team had been fighting the Covenant for over three decades now, so they weren't much of a challenge anymore. But these soldiers were eerily off kilter.

"The Covenant seem particularly disorganized lately," Kelly stated, similarly thinking along the lines of Fred.

"They're falling apart," he added.

"Finally," Linda said, who had just now caught up to the three of them. Her sniper rifle was resting along her back.

"Would be strange, wouldn't it?" Fred reminisced. "Not to be fighting them? After all these years."

"I wouldn't miss it," Kelly said, relieved.

Their whole lives, the Covenant had been the most dangerous and significant adversary they had fought against; with the exception of the Master Chief. He had faced other threats such as the Flood during the Halo Conflict and at the War's final battles. And later, when he was found on Requiem by the Infinity, he went up against the Didact and his Promethean constructs.

Blue Team helped him take down the Didact on Installation 03 soon after, and ever since, they haven't fought the Prometheans personally. Although, Fred did know that the Infinity had returned to Requiem to retake the planet from Jul 'Mdama, but he didn't know the outcome or if any more Prometheans remained. But to finally see the Covenant beginning to come to a true end was a strange relief for Fred. It felt as if he was being robbed of a purpose, and that this mission would be the final major confrontation against the alien hegemony.

Blue Team advanced towards the far end of the assembly bay and came upon a threshold leading towards Central Control. Kelly paused a bit and saw a glowing orange shotgun on the ground, next to a skeleton of one of the scientists. She kneeled next to the weapon, examining the tip protruding off the side of the weapon next to the muzzle: it was a Promethean attachment. But as to how it came aboard Argent Moon, Fred wasn't sure.

The UNSC wasn't officially introduced to the Promethean threat until July of last year, and the Argent Moon didn't go dark until four months prior to that. And yet, here proof of ONI knowing about Promethean technology before Requiem lay before them. Fred wondered what many other secrets ONI had been hiding from them, and why they were sent here if these secrets weren't meant to be found.

A catwalk lay before them through the threshold. "Central Control is through those doors," the Chief said, noting several doors ahead at the end of the catwalk. Below them was darkness and a heavy mist from the cold of the station.

It was too quiet. Fred expected more Covenant at least guarding the entrance to Central Control.

Blue Team got halfway across the catwalk, and a stack of crates up against a wall in front of them burst forth, revealing a surprisingly hidden and suddenly aggressive Hunter. The massive hulk charged onto the catwalk and brought down its mighty shield, shattering the supports below where Fred and the rest were standing. Fred and the others had no time to react.

The catwalk twisted and warped under the strain, and crumpled under the weight of the Hunter's force, sending Blue Team tumbling down into the darkness below.

John stood up, regaining consciousness from the fall. He immediately scanned the area for threats and his comrades, assault rifle drawn. He was standing in a moist, rocky and dark cave, alone. Something was off. Why was there a rocky cave at the bottom of a research station? Was it part of the Asteroidea incident Rooker mentioned in the beginning of their operation? If so, he hoped the filters in his suit fended off the thick dangerous fog accumulating around him.

John noticed a familiar feeling of pressure in the back of his mind, as if someone was trying to get inside his head. The last time he felt this was back on Requiem, when the Librarian mentally contacted him and revealed to him the nature of the Didact's schemes and humanity's status as Reclaimers. He lowered his weapon and called out to his companions.

"Blue Team, report," he said over private comms. He looked around worriedly. His radar indicated no one near his position, and his readings of Blue Team's vitals were static, including his own.

"Sierra 117 to Blue Team, report," he continued. Still no response. John shifted, uncomfortably lost. "Sierra 117. Does anyone copy?"

Out of the depths of the cave, came a familiar voice, whispering his designation.

"Chief…." The voice faintly said, drawing out the word. John looked around for the source. It sounded unmistakably like Cortana. This was, impossible however. But, as he turned around, he saw a bright blue light radiating from a rock not too far from his position.

John, curious and confused, cautiously walked towards the source of the blue light and saw that it was a data crystal chip, similar to the one that had once housed Cortana in the back of his helmet. His heart was beating fast, and he wasn't sure how to react.

Was he dreaming? Were his friends looking over his unconscious body outside? He couldn't be though. This all seemed too real to be fake.

John approached the data crystal chip, shining bright on the rock, humming out a soft energetic noise. He knelt down, slowly reaching for it. But as soon as he touched it, it disappeared into thin air without a trace.

He drew back his hand, surprised and now suddenly alert. He felt like he was being lead into a trap, one which included hallucinations. Surely his battle fatigue hadn't reached the point of such things. The voice spoke again, more clearly this time.

"John," it said, using his name. He looked to his right and saw a rocky tunnel with a pulsing light. It was definitely Cortana's voice calling out to him. John got up, assault rifle ready, and cautiously walked down the tunnel. He suspiciously looked about as he slowly turned the corner, and came across a large and murky cliff side. He was bathed in moonlight, from what appeared to be a moon in the dark and cloudy sky. John came to the edge of the black and shadowy chasm, and he studied its depths. Misty clouds obstructed his view.

"Chief," the voice said once again, closer and clearly audible. John looked up in sudden surprise to see a feminine figure walking towards the opposite side of the rocky chasm, silhouetted by the large bright moon. The figure was none other than the shape of Cortana's avatar; albeit pitch black in the gloomy atmosphere.

"The Domain is open," the figure said. "Meridian is next."

"Cortana?" John finally asked, lowering his weapon ever so slightly, afraid of the answer he may receive.

He saw her die in front of him, and to see her again, after a year of absence, reopened nearly healed wounds.

"John!" the figure exclaimed. "The Reclamation is about to begin!" At this, the figure raised its arms as if raising something up. That was in fact what it was doing, as a large angelic construct rose up from the depths of the misty chasm. The cliff John was standing on shook and fell apart.

He backed away from the ledge into the tunnel, his rifle pointed at the new arrival. It continued to rise into the night sky, and an overwhelming feeling of cold and darkness washed over his mind, bringing him to his knee. John felt as if he were about to faint, and he heard a voice calling out to him.

It wasn't the voice of the ghostly "Cortana" however. It was Kelly's, who was kneeling right next to him. The area in which they had fallen into from above was dark and foggy, like the cave in John's "dream."

In the dark, John could see Fred and Linda cautiously approaching him; they all looked worried, shuffling in their armor. John instantly stood up, not wanting to discourage his friends anymore. They now had more than fatigue to worry about when it came to his well-being. Kelly stood too, looking right at him, very concerned.

"Your vitals were reading KIA, but you were mumbling."

John sputtered out what he had seen, still getting over the strange feeling and returning back to normal. "She's on Meridian."

"Who?" Kelly calmly questioned, confused but patient.

"Cortana."

Fred was taken aback. "That's not possible." He pointed out the obvious, but it was undeniable to John. That was Cortana he saw, and she was still active somewhere on Meridian.

"You said she was, gone," Linda said, confused.

This was true. He had told them his story about his endeavors on Requiem and the Mantle's Approach. He told them everything after their mission on Installation 03 and the containment of the Didact. But now, John wasn't so sure about her "death."

"I watched her die," he said figuratively. He was still piecing things together, and his anxiety was increasing. He wanted to continue talking about this with his friends, but they had a mission to complete, and he narrowed his mind back to the task at hand. This cleared his anxiety and brought him back to focus.

"We have a mission to focus on. We can talk about this later. Lights on," he ordered. Three green lights flashed on his HUD, and they all turned on their helmet lights, illuminating the loading area and many crates around them. They must have fallen below the stealth vessel where the scientists and engineers loaded up materials.

"Frederick," John began, turning to Fred. "Get us back on course for Central Control."

"Bringing up schematics," Fred said. "There's an elevator we can use, but access is four levels down."

"Mark a path," John ordered.

Blue Team walked into a dark circular hallway ahead, indicated on the path Fred had provided for them. Sparks fell down onto the Spartans from a broken circuit above, illuminating their shields. A terminal beside them said "Quarantine Protocol Initiated," further adding to the dangerous atmosphere. A single leak in their helmet could be the end of them. As such, John cautiously took point and led the Spartans through the hallways.

The walls aggressively shook, and John heard the heavy footsteps of Hunters above. He took a left and then a right, checking his corners and signaling an all clear signal for Blue Team to advance. Ahead, down a ramp, John heard the high pitched voices of some investigating Grunts, attempting to find them.

A Grunt walked in front of John, but instantly disintegrated into tiny orange ashes. Kelly had used the experimental shotgun she had found earlier with the Promethean attachment on the unsuspecting alien. John wasn't sure how the scientists onboard Argent Moon got ahold of Promethean technology, but ONI has its many secrets, secrets he had no business of knowing.

"Hostile Contact," John confirmed. He took aim with his assault rifle and popped shots at each of the Grunts, confused in the dark tunnels. After several of them disintegrating and falling to the ground, Blue Team was clear. John led them to the right and then the left, and down a small flight of stairs. More sparks flew overhead from damaged electrical coils. A door at the end of the staircase opened as John approached; when Blue Team entered the laboratory, John could hear sleeping Grunts from all sides.

Blue Team quietly eliminated each Grunt in their sleep with their combat knifes; but before they could finish, a door on the far side of the room opened, revealing several more Grunts and two Elites. The new arrivals saw what was happening, and engaged Blue Team.

Kelly had been watching the door, and when the Elites walked in she alerted Blue Team that they were dawning active camouflage. She fired a few rounds from her modified shotgun into the group, killing a few Grunts. The Elites however, instantly disappeared. Blue Team activated their VISR suites on their HUDs and were able to easily see the outlines of their invisible adversaries.

Fred eliminated a golden Warrior with his iconic move by using his thrusters to slide underneath beside the Elite's leg and stumble them with his knife. John offered fire support with his assault rifle and concentrated on the remaining Elite, who eventually disappeared into orange ashes after a point blank shot from Kelly.

"This area is clear," John confirmed, and motioned Blue Team towards the door the Covenant had come in through.

"Chief?" Kelly began to ask, stopping him. "What did Cortana say to you?"

John turned towards her and the other two, annoyed. "Not enough….said something about Meridian." He didn't want to engage in small talk now that they were back on completing their mission.

Fred stepped forward and looked at him inquisitively. "Meridian's a backwater. If she's active, what's she doing so far out on the frontier?"

He raised a good question. Meridian was an outer colony, lost to the UNSC back in 2551 when the Covenant had finished glassing the planet. It was overall pretty insignificant to the UNSC now, and held no economic or scientific importance to the best of John's knowledge.

Wanting to continue the mission, he ignored Fred's question, and John continued down into the dark hallway with Blue Team in the rear. "We've reached level two," he confirmed. "Keep moving down." He would figure this mystery out later, after they had left the station.

A suicide Grunt turned the rounded corner ahead screaming "Your existence is a front to the Gods!" John popped a shot off in its head at a safe distance so that the primed plasma grenades wouldn't harm him and his team.

Blue Team turned the corner and went down a flight of stairs. The entire hallway shook, and they could hear the thumping of Hunters above them. Ahead, several reinforced windows lined the wall. John cautiously approached as a large mass with green glowing lights smashed against one of the windows, cracking it. An overhead light burst, and a crate fell over with a thud.

Linda pointed out that the Hunters were keeping pace with them, stalking Blue Team as if they were prey. More windows cracked and more crates fell as another Hunter banged ferociously against the adjacent wall.

Blue Team continued ever downward into the station through the dark maze like hallways, eliminating any Covenant search parties that got in their way. All throughout their descent, they could hear the echoes and vibrations of the Hunters following their position. Several Grunts kept yelling at them saying: "Big ones gonna get you, big ones gonna get you!" before they were silenced by Blue Team.

They eventually came across another laboratory, and like the previous one before, eliminated the Covenant within.

Fred however, noticed the hidden threat in the back. "Zealot with an Energy Sword!"

"For the glory of 'Mdama!" the Zealot yelled as it rushed towards Fred. Linda, who was in the back offering fire support with her sniper rifle, Nornfang, spotted the Zealot running with its deadly weapon poised to strike. She fired a shot at its head, disabling its shields and blowing a gaping hole straight through its cranium.

"Clear," Linda said. John never underestimated Linda's skill with the sniper rifle. Shooting a strikingly fast moving invisible target, in the dark, was nothing for her.

"We've reached level three," Kelly said. "One more level down to the elevator for Central Control." They continued down another descending staircase and hallway. The vibrations shook harder than ever around them.

"Covenant battlenet just lit up!" Kelly informed as Blue Team walked through a door and entered an observation deck on the side of the station. "And, I think I know why….Covenant ships are exiting slipsace."

They all looked up and out the window. Sure enough, about five Covenant blockade runners escorted by Spirits and Banshees, entered Argents Moon's proximity through blue vortexes outside. This is not what John had anticipated in this operation.

"We're outnumbered here Chief," Fred said wearingly. "A few thousand to one."

John refused to abort the mission because of the new arrivals. "Surrendering the Argent Moon is not an option."

"Neither is fighting half the Covenant in close quarters," Linda stated. None of the Spartans were strangers to that scenario. But none of them preferred to go down that route, as the chances of failure and wasting their lives when they could have chosen an alternative solution was too heavy to execute properly. Sam proved that to them all those years ago.

John acted quickly, and decided to take a page out of his playbook when faced with these immeasurable odds. There were no scientists to save, all the classified information in Argent Moon had been downloaded into their suits systems back in the data center, and they were simply now trying to eliminate the Covenant within the station by shutting off the life support.

But with the new fleet here, it would be impossible to eliminate every single target. So the only thing left to do was to deny the Covenant the station itself.

"Then forget about reaching Central Control," John began to say. "The plan changes to asset denial. We scuttle the Argent Moon."

Chapter 5

0507 hours, October 23, 2558 (Military Calendar)/Blue Team onboard ONI research station Argent Moon.

Kelly and the rest of Blue Team entered a small armory filled with several BR85 rifles and MA5D assault rifles. She, along with the others, restocked on ammunition. Kelly was glad to see that the special ammunition for her experimental shotgun was in a small casing near the back.

"Ship's reactor core is near here," John said, reloading his MA5D. She always admired his skill with the standard issue rifle.

"Same plan as the Perpetual Devotion?" Fred asked, referring to an operation Blue Team engaged in a few months ago when they destroyed a Covenant vessel from within.

"We overload the reactor and evac," John confirmed. "Ship explodes, destroying any ships nearby."

Kelly couldn't wait to see the Covenant fleet in shock when they realized their imminent doom. Schematics of the Argent Moon were displayed on her HUD by Fred, showing their location within the vessel. He labeled their new destination on the schematic.

"The reactor is below the lab just ahead. We can use air ducts to travel between them," she said smirking. "Marking the access panel."

A small waypoint appeared on a nearby panel next to a large elevator door. The Chief walked up to it and entered in the code with his datasec keys. The PA overhead authorized their entry into the lab.

Kelly continued to monitor the Covenant battlenet for any clues as to why they had suddenly arrived. She was shocked by some of the details.

"There's chatter about Jul 'Mdama on Covenant comms," she informed the team. They turned around to see why she halted.

"The new arrivals say he's dead."

Blue Team looked at her in quick surprise. Fred was impressed. "Somebody cut the head off the Covenant. Bravo."

This was very good news indeed. Not just for Blue Team, but for the rest of the UNSC. The resurgent Covenant threat was truly coming to a close. Without a leader, they would surely fall in mere weeks, if not days.

Blue Team walked into the elevator and it descended into the lab. Kelly spotted several Hunter worms, or Lekgolo as they were officially designated, slither down the large window onto the lab floor below.

"Hunters….." John said regrettably as a massive Hunter rose in front of the elevator. Kelly shared his hatred for the massive beasts. They had always been a pain to deal with, and she had watched several of them kill and severely injure some of her fellow Spartans. And the fact that they had recently been stalking them in the dark wasn't very relaxing either.

Fred reminded them of the basic attributes of Hunters and advised a course of action to ensure efficiency across the team. "They're strong, but slow. Use the lab equipment to keep above them and out of their reach."

The Hunter in front of them reared its two massive arms and 'roared' a deep rumbling sound in intimidation. It aggressively lunged and slammed its shield and massive cannon into the large window, creating two large fractured spots in the panel. Blue Team backed up cautiously. Kelly gripped her modified shotgun tight as she and John filed out to the right of the elevator while Fred and Linda took to the left.

"Weapons free!" the Chief ordered. Kelly flashed her green confirmation light. She quickly ran and slid underneath an overhanging platform where several frag grenades and assault rifles were being stored. She saw the other Hunter in the back of the lab, making its way towards the Spartans to join its companion.

"Linda, focus on the rear Hunter," John said above her as he placed a waypoint over the alien on their HUDs. "I'll provide cover fire while you target its back and neck. Kelly, you and Fred focus on the nearest Hunter."

Kelly and Fred flashed their confirmation lights to him, and Kelly peered around cover to face the Hunter in the middle of the lab. Fred had taken out his Hydra launcher and was firing its small missiles at the Hunter—but to no avail. The massive beast raised its shield as it took fire, and had its back exposed. Kelly lobbed a grenade under its feet, and ran towards the creature; the grenade detonated, and in doing so knocked the armor off protecting the wriggling worms within.

Kelly simultaneously slid under the Hunters raised shield as it turned around to bring it down on her, and quickly jumped up and thrusted backwards facing the creature's exposed back. She fired two rounds with her shotgun, disintegrating the majority of the worms that composed the creature. The Hunter tumbled over in a pile of orange blood and ash.

She turned around and ran underneath the other overhang on the other side of the lab. She saw the other Hunter taking shots from John and Fred, and returned fire with its massive cannon. It saw its companion dead, and became enraged, changing its cannon to that of a plasma firing minigun. Kelly took cover as the metal wall between her and it melted under the extreme heat.

Little did the beast realize that above it in the back of lab atop some pipes was Linda, who fired off two shots from her sniper rifle into the creatures exposed back, and once in the neck. Several of the Lekgolo worms were flung off the creature from the explosive rounds, and the beast bled orange, armor weakened from the oncoming fire. Fred and John took the opportunity in the creature's stunned state to lob some frag grenades under its feet, ending its life.

"Hunters down," John said as he jumped down from his elevated position.

With their stalkers eliminated, Kelly took the time to catch a breath and take in the lab's features. The charred skeletons of the ONI scientists littered the floor, their data pads still streaming classified information across their dimmed screens. Near the elevator Blue Team had arrived through were several large containment tubes with deceased Jackals in them. All across the walls were warning labels that prohibited firearms in the lab. The monitors displayed detailed schematics of a Jackal's neural anatomy; there were cell storage compartments along the walls.

But the most intriguing aspect about the strange laboratory they found themselves in was the large green transparent storage containers on the ceiling. The containers were dark and obstructed the view of their contents, but Kelly could make out large forms inside that reminded her of the Guta creatures on Reach.

What was ONI doing with these creatures and the Jackals? There were many strange and ubiquitous experiments being conducted on this station. It was unfortunate it had to be destroyed; at least ONI would still have their data and research.

Although, Kelly wondered if all this classified research was worth it at all. It had to be, or else they wouldn't have sent them in to retrieve it and discover what happened to Argent Moon. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of this station was very suspicious.

Fred located an exit towards the reactor core in the back of the lab. "The reactor core is just below us. Let's go."

Kelly and the rest of Blue Team regrouped at his position near a ventilation shaft. Fortunately, the schematics of the Argent Moon showed a path leading directly to the reactor core through the ventilation system. John overrode the lock junction on the maintenance shaft, and it slid across the floor tracks revealing a hole leading down into the vents. One by one they carefully jumped down, checking their surroundings for any hostiles. They were clear.

"Reactor room is just ahead," Fred confirmed on their HUDs. "We can light this fuse and bolt."

"No salvage for the Covenant," Linda said matter-of-factly.

"Right, let's go," Kelly responded. She wanted to end this mission as soon as possible and leave this strange station. John said nothing on the matter and took point. They turned the corner and found an air duct obstructing their path.

John used his thrusters to slam into the fragile vent and it shattered under the force. They continued down the ventilation system quietly until they came into a clearing overlooking the reactor room. Below, Covenant soldiers were walking around, scouting the area for the Spartans. Two Jackals directly below them were speaking to one another.

"What is happening?" a Jackal asked in its raspy raptor like voice. "Why has the fleet come?"

"Jul 'Mdama is dead! Regroup! Attack Sanghelios!" the other exclaimed.

The two jackals didn't have any more time to talk, as John signaled for Blue Team to engage their targets. The two Jackals fell quickly from Linda's sniper fire, who remained atop inside the ventilation shaft for a tactical vantage point. Kelly jumped down with Fred and John, and ran to the right of the room for a flanking position. The Covenant had set up a couple of plasma turrets, which rained down fire upon her shields. She took cover behind some crates, and signaled Linda to take them down.

In the middle of the room, hanging on the ceiling, was a ring like platform where several Jackals had positioned themselves with Carbines to fire down on Fred and John. With Linda focusing on the manned turrets, Kelly took her pistol out and provided cover fire.

With the Jackals redirecting their attention on her, Fred was able to safely eliminate them with his DMR. Blue Team pushed up, eliminating any Elites that got in their way. Linda further eliminated any Jackal snipers that showed their illuminated targeting hardware when they peered around cover to take a shot at Blue Team. Eventually, the Spartans made it up the ramps into the reactor control room, eliminating an Elite Warrior taking a last stand with an energy sword under their combined fire.

"Area's clear," Kelly said, checking for more Covenant. "Initiate the overload."

John walked up to the master control panel and entered in the passcode with his datasec keys. A sudden wave of energy burst forth from the reactor in the middle of the room, and sparks flew everywhere.

The overhead PA system reminded them of imminent reactor failure. They had at most, 10 minutes to get off the station before it blew.

"Got it. Reactor's overloading," John said. "Move for the hangar bay-,"

"Containment protocol initiated," the PA system announced, catching Blue Team off guard.

"Containment?" John asked, confused.

Fred pointed out the obvious. "The station's going to try to cool the reactor."

Kelly had never heard of a containment protocol on a UNSC vessel. But this was ONI, and with the Cole Protocol basically insignificant, there was no real reason to manually blow the reactor and destroy the vessel. "I guess the UNSC has better reactor safety protocol than the Covenant," she said, remembering the Perpetual Devotion a few months back.

"We can stop that," John said, walking towards the reactor in the middle of the room. "Board the reactor Blue Team."

Kelly was confused. What was John planning on doing?

"Board the reactor?" she said dumbfounded.

"If it's being moved, we should go with it," John responded quickly. He motioned Blue Team on top of the reactor, and it began to descend into a coolant chamber below, to the bottom of Argent Moon.

"The safety systems are set to pump coolant into the reactor," Fred said, implying they would have to manually disable the safety systems to stop the containment protocol; even if it meant destroying some things. Kelly was anxious to get this over with. They were so close to ending the mission. But of course, something had to go south and they'd have to improvise. Classic Blue Team procedure.

Linda cautioned them of the low success. "This whole plan fails if that coolant gets a chance to work."

Kelly smiled with joy. The Covenant had no idea what was coming for them.

"Shame to lose the Argent Moon…" she began to say. It was a very important vessel to ONI, and that stealth ship could've come in handy. But the Covenant couldn't get their hands on the sensitive intelligence. "…..but I'd love to see the look on the Covenant's faces when she goes supernova."

She, alongside the rest of Blue Team, continued their descent into the cooling chamber of the reactor, prepared to do whatever was necessary to end the containment protocol and kill any Covenant that got in their way.

Kitun 'Arach stood on the bridge of his personal Brigantine, the Eternal Divination. After hearing that the Demons on Kamchatka had cleansed the filth that was Jul 'Mdama, he had returned to his vessel to help finish off the remaining Prometheans from orbit.

It was then that he received orders from Sali 'Nyon—who had assumed leadership of Jul's Covenant after hiding in the shadows, waiting for his imminent demise—to take the surviving fleet to retrieve some stragglers investigating a lost human vessel. He was also to collect any or all the resources they had gathered from their investigation. In fact, these stragglers were the last few who were 'loyal' to Jul 'Mdama. They simply still believed he was a prophet. How wrong they were.

Kitun laughed at Jul's desperation. He had sent his remaining faithful soldiers from his watch, as they were the only ones he trusted to fulfill a mission such as this. Of course, it was all a distraction. The Kig-yar who discovered this station were paid in full by Sali 'Nyon to sell the station to Jul's Covenant, just in order for him to be surrounded by those who saw his failures for what they were.

Unfortunately, there were still some who remained behind thinking his work on Kamchatka would bring them closer to securing victory over Sanghelios. No matter. They were all killed by the Demons back on the frigid planet.

When his fleet arrived, Kitun ordered the message of Jul 'Mdama's death to be broadcasted to every soldier remaining on the station, allowing them to choose whether to join Sali 'Nyon's new Covenant and retain their honor, or be killed in defiance. Seeing as they were outnumbered, they chose to join and provide news of their efforts.

Apparently, another group of Demons had infiltrated the vessel to take it back and eliminate those already inside. Reports confirmed that one of the humans was the Demon. The one the humans called the Master Chief; responsible for the destruction of one of the Sacred Halos and the death of the almighty Didact. Kitun saw his chance to be an idol among the Covenant. If he eliminated the Demon, then nothing would be able to intimidate them from reclaiming Sanghelios and any other future endeavors.

"Give me a status on the humans," Kitun said to his field commander, Thil H'raam.

"Fleetmaster, the Demons have initiated a reactor overload, although the vessel appears to be attempting to contain it with coolant," Thil replied. "They are located near the bottom of the vessel where the majority of the ship has been gutted out for parts. Reports confirm they are attempting to disable the containment protocols."

"Send reinforcements! We cannot afford the Demons destroying this vessel!"

Kitun was worried. If the humans succeeded in stopping the containment, then the fleet would be in trouble. Human vessels were notorious for detonating in very dangerous nuclear explosions; and based on the size of this station, the entire fleet would be engulfed in the flames. And his reputation in the eyes of Sali 'Nyon would be that of failure.

He observed an entire contingent of Banshees and Phantoms make their way to the Demons' position.

"Thil, are there any other ways for the humans to escape the vessel?" If the demons managed to stop the reactor's containment, he'd want to make sure they couldn't escape the explosion alive. The fleet had discovered a hidden dropship floating amidst the surrounding asteroids, and destroyed it to deny the humans retrieval. But Kitun didn't underestimate the skill of these humans: they were very resourceful.

"The station has several docked life pods shipmaster," Thil replied. Kitun expected this, but life pods wouldn't get them very far. Nor would Banshees, assuming they acquired some at their location.

Thil continued with his scans. "Fleetmaster, there is a single human stealth ship docked in the central hangar bay of the vessel."

"Relocate any survivors that aren't dealing with the demons currently to that position, and send in reinforcements to help secure the area. I don't want to take any chances."

"Your will be done Fleetmaster."

Kitun was sure he would be able to halt the demons' progression.

However, a few minutes later, Thil alerted him that the Spartans had actually managed to eliminate the squadron sent to their location and deactivate the containment protocol, much to Kitun's disappointment.

He half-expected this, but hoped against hope his reinforcements would have been enough to stop them. He had much to learn, and he now understood how all those who opposed the Demon felt when they heard of their losses. He simply had to deal with his shame, wrought by his arrogance and blindness. He awaited whatever punishment Sali would have for him. But he would not allow his shame to infect the innocent honor of those below him.

"Alert the fleet," Kitun ordered. "Prepare to evacuate the area immediately."

"Fleetmaster, forgive my misconduct, but that'd be disgraceful to our honor!" Thil argued, rightfully so under the circumstances. Sangheili do not retreat from a fight.

"Sanghelios is our priority," Kitun responded, understanding the conflicting situation. He made sure his response to Thil was heard throughout the fleet. "Our true enemies are the Swords and the heretic, Thel 'Vadam. If we do not muster all we can to fight against him and win over our planet, then we are dishonoring our own divine lands blessed by the Forerunners!"

Thil paused and thought about his words. Kitun then thought of those who had remained loyal to Jul. Perhaps not all of them earned the right to reclaim Sanghelios. He continued on the open broadcast. "For those of you who chose loyalty to the blasphemous Jul 'Mdama and undertook this mission for the sake of his stained legacy, remain behind and reclaim your lost honor by stopping the Demons. Your lives will be remembered when the flames of your sins cleanse your souls."

At this, Thil agreed to the order, and initiated the Eternal Divination's slip space drive. Kitun sat at his throne and looked forward to what the days ahead had in store for the Covenant and his position.

"Time Linda?" John asked as he pushed a dead Grunt off the terminal that controlled the loading platform Blue Team was standing on. He initiated the platform to rise up to the ONI Prowler still docked in the hangar bay.

"Eighty-nine seconds," Linda confirmed as she continued to scan the area for more hostiles. They only had that amount of time before the reactor of Argent Moon went critical and detonated. Blue Team had managed to stop the containment protocols with Covenant Banshees by destroying the coolant vents on the reactor core; but when they tried calling in Sam's Honor, they discovered it had been destroyed by the fleet, much to their disappointment.

So, they improvised their escape by hightailing it to the Prowler they discovered earlier that was still docked in the central hangar bay. Of course, the Covenant wouldn't have let them free without a fight.

"Cascade failure," the PA system above alerted. "Fires on all decks."

John saw the hallway they had come in from detonate in a huge chain reaction. Fire and debris raged across the hangar bay. He activated his comm to alert the Infinity of the Argent Moon's fate.

"Sierra 117 to Infinity. Argent Moon scuttled," he began. ONI wouldn't be too happy about that, but at least Blue Team had secured the information stored on the vessel. Although, they also wouldn't be pleased about what he had to say next—they were to report back to Infinity as soon as they were finished with their operation.

"I've reassigned Blue Team, destination Meridian. Potential contact from Cortana—"

"Negative, 117." It was Captain Lasky on the comms. "Another team is being prepped to deal with her."

John stood there, stunned for a moment. They had reassigned another team? Wait, and how did they know about Cortana in the first place? She had just contacted him a little over an hour ago, through a strange mental connection he still didn't quite understand.

Sharing his confusion, Fred turned to John. "What the hell…?"

Lasky continued with their orders, stressing them. "You're to return to Infinity immediately."

However the means the UNSC knew of Cortana, John felt uncomfortable about another fireteam investigating her sudden reappearance. The lives of other fellow Spartans should not be jeopardized over something as mysterious and personal as this, especially when Cortana could still potentially be rampant; assuming she really was still active….somehow. She knew him the best. She wouldn't want to harm him. And he had a pretty experienced grasp on how to handle any unintended accidents from her…..

"Negative Infinity…..I don't like it," John quickly said, stiffening up. Every fiber in his being told him not to say it, not to disobey orders like that again.

The prowler's ramp descended onto the docking platform, and John saw Kelly immediately walk up the ramp into the vessel.

"Whoever they are, let's get to Meridian before they do," she said, referring to the other Spartans.

John quickly argued against her coming with him. He would drop them off at the nearest UNSC outpost or station and continue on his way. "Kelly, no."

He knew they trusted him just as much as he did to them. He knew they would follow him wherever he went. But if he wasn't willing to allow the lives of other Spartans be in jeopardy, he sure as hell wouldn't want the lives of his closest friends be in the same position, especially Kelly's. He could handle this alone.

Linda turned to face him. "No need to do this by yourself, Chief," she said reassuringly as she too walked up the ramp behind Kelly.

John, annoyed, knowing it wasn't worth it to argue, instinctively looked up. Another large explosion in the ceiling blew debris onto the prowler and its surrounding areas. He saw Fred hastily walk towards him.

"They won't court martial all of us right?" Fred said jokingly as he patted John on the arm, and hustled up the ramp.

No they wouldn't court martial all of them. He would take full responsibility for Blue Team's insubordination should the need arise. John once more looked around the hangar bay falling apart, and turned to board the prowler. He closed the ramp behind him, and watched it as it slowly rose, protecting him from the hellish outside.

The prowler begin to rise from the hangar, and he walked up to the cockpit and sat in the co-pilot's seat next to Kelly, who was navigating the vessel. She turned the forward engines on, boosting them out of Argent Moon through fire, smoke, and debris. All around them, Covenant ships were being caught in the explosions, engulfed by the flames and hit by chunks of the station.

Kelly activated the prowler's cloaking hardware, making them totally invisible in the dark of space. She initiated the slipspace drive and set coordinates to Meridian, with 7 seconds to spare before the reactor went critical.

She turned to look at him, setting the auto-pilot function on. "Are you going to tell us more about Cortana? I'm just as confused as you are."

"I will Kelly. But let me think things over first. This mission served some other purpose than being a simple search and rescue operation, and I think the UNSC and ONI are hiding something from us. What that is, I'm not sure yet."

"You come tell us when you're ready John," she generously said, as she got up and put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't overthink this. I share the same feelings, but we have more dire priorities now. And don't think we won't have your back. We'll follow you wherever you go, and we'll trust you over anyone else." She moved her two fingers across her faceplate in the traditional "Spartan Smile" and exited the cockpit to join Fred and Linda, who were checking their armor and recovering from the operation.

As John sat there, looking out into the dark void of slip space, he continued to have that ominous feeling their mission here at Argent Moon was simply just a distraction for Blue Team.

To stay clear of a larger and more significant purpose, and were intentionally being kept in the dark on more important matters. What exactly those matters were, he couldn't figure out, but he had a hunch it had something to do with Cortana. But it wouldn't matter soon enough. They would hunt the truth about her sudden re-appearance, and discover why she was being targeted by the UNSC.

He eased into his seat, taking in the chance to relax from combat in quiet, glad to be surrounded by loyal companions.