Author's Notes: First of all, I do not own Halo or any of the characters therein; it is the property of Bungie and all the other companies that made it. Secondly, this fanfic takes place in between the Halo Book First Strike and the events of Halo 2. If you have not read the books, be advised, there are spoilers in this work. Also, some of the dates and place names (particularly planets and systems) may be a bit off. I had to get most of my information on them from the books, and I had to send those back home as I'm in the Navy and don't have a lot of room for stuff like books, so it's a good thing that I think I have a decent memory. I haven't played Halo 2 at all, as I don't own an X-Box (please oh, please put it out for PC), so if some of the plotlines in this work don't coincide with those of the game, you can't hurt me, because I'm in the Navy, and the Master Chief will back me up.
"We are never alone.
We are never without guidance.
Even in the silence of our dreams,
Who we are, and who we will be,
Is forever remembered
In the Echoes of Eternity."
- Covenant prayer, found inscribed upon a piece of debris discovered in orbit above the ghost planet Eridanus.0400, October 2, 2552 (revised date, Military Calendar) Aboard UNSC Military Command Station 001, in orbit above Mars, Sol System:
"Sorry to wake you so early, Master Chief," the young Third Class said apologetically as she struggled to keep up with the Spartan. "About ten minutes ago, we received notification that Admiral Marks would be conducting a Priority Level One holographic briefing with General Tannery here on the station. We were given orders to have you present."
Master Chief Spartan 117 – known only to a few as John – strode quickly down the hall, making last minute checks on his suit of MJOLNIR armor. It had just been repaired after the disaster on Halo and his subsequent return to the Sol system, and he had yet to test its operational readiness.
"I wasn't asleep," he replied quietly, his voice filtered through his helmet.
The noncom looked a bit surprised, not to mention like she had only woken up ten minutes ago herself. "Oh. Well… I'm glad," she offered lamely. "If Admiral Marks has initiated a Priority Level One transmission, whatever he has to say can't be good. I think we're all going to need to be wide awake sooner than we might like." She turned down a side corridor, following red markers on the walls that read "Communications."
"General Tannery is waiting for you in the tertiary conference chambers," she continued as she stopped at a console station and started accessing the system. "If you'll please proceed there, I'll let the General know you're coming.
The Master Chief nodded, and continued down the corridor. It was probable, he surmised, that the woman's assumption was correct. The tertiary conference chamber, rarely used, was equipped with exceptionally good security systems. If General Tannery wanted to take the Admiral's call there, it likely was not good news at all.
And when a Spartan was summoned, it was a sure sign that something big was about to go down.
He could only hope that the Admiral wasn't contacting them to announce the beginning of the Covenant's invasion on Earth. It had only been two weeks since he and a small team of his fellow Spartans had destroyed the Unyielding Hierophant, the Covenant command and control base for the invasion fleet. Most of the invasion fleet had gone with it, and ONI had estimated it would take the aliens years to rebuild. But the Covenant had surprised them before, so the Master Chief could not quite shake his sense of foreboding as he approached the tertiary conference chamber.
The security system outside the chamber's door interfaced with his armor's internal computers for a millisecond, and once it verified the authenticity of the self-identification program, the meter-thick titanium door swung silently backward on hinges as big around as his forearm. The room within was deceptively well furnished, complete with a long glass table running down the center with carved wooden legs, comfortably cushioned chairs lining both sides, and a handful of couches along the gray metal walls. There were even a few tapestries hung at evenly spaced intervals along them, depicting scenes of various military victories from Earth's early space colonization era. The chamber looked like the type one could find in the headquarters of any large business, but this one disguised ONI's best security and anti-surveillance equipment. The Master Chief sincerely doubted that even Elite Covenant spies, had they been present, would have been able to find out what was going on inside.
As the door closed behind him, General Marcus Tannery spun his chair around to face him. "Ah, there you are, Master Chief," he said quietly. The General was a middle-aged man, with graying hair cut in the short military style, but he was well-built, and his eyes gave testament to the fact that he still had a great amount of energy left. He was known for personally leading his troops on the battlefield, when he could, and John had a great deal of respect for him.
The Spartan came to attention and saluted. "General. Reporting as ordered."
Tannery gestured for him to be at ease. "Make yourself comfortable. I'm expecting the Admiral's transmission at any moment." He turned his chair back to face the screen mounted on the wall at the far end of the table.
John stepped up next to him, but did not sit down. Instead, he clasped his hands at the small of his back and stood at parade rest.
He briefly considered asking Tannery if he knew what this meeting was about, but decided against it. If the General wanted him to know, he would say something. And there was always a possibility that the General himself didn't know what to expect.
A minute passed, then two, and the room remained deathly silent. Suddenly, the screen flashed and came to life, filled with a close-up view of the face of the noncom John had left outside the conference room. "Incoming transmission," she said into the microphone headset she wore. "Please standby."
The screen switched to the UNSC crest, then flickered again before being replaced by the image of Admiral Marks. Like most Admirals, Marks was an older man. He had lost much of his white hair, but like Tannery, his gray eyes still shone with vigor. John was familiar with Marks, but this would be his first chance to interact with him directly, so he made a mental note to himself to pay close attention.
"General, Master Chief," the Admiral greeted, his already rough voice slightly distorted by the comm unit's speakers. "Glad you could join me."
"Admiral," Tannery nodded in greeting.
John snapped to attention briefly. "Good morning, Admiral."
The room that Marks was in appeared to be an office, complete with a well-furnished desk and paintings on the wall behind him. But there were no windows, and John realized that the walls were solid titanium, lightly painted over and textured to give the impression of stone. Wherever the Admiral was, it was a secure location, easily as protected – if not more so – as the location Tannery and John were in now.
Marks leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. His expression wasn't grim, but John noted that it looked intense. "Gentlemen, I'm sure I don't need to remind you that everything discussed here stays here," he said quietly. He waited until both the Master Chief and the General nodded. "What I'm about to tell you is to stay secret at all costs, until I personally direct you to release it to those who need to know."
"Understood, Admiral," Tannery said.
"Good." Marks surprised John by smiling. "Now that the formalities are out of the way, I believe that we can finally say that we just might have come across a lucky break in our war with the Covenant. Not to slight your efforts in the operation to destroy the Unyielding Hierophant, Master Chief, but that could pale compared to this."
John's curiosity finally got the better of him. "How so, sir?" he prompted.
Marks started to explain. "As you know, the Covenant gain most of their technology through adaptive means. In other words, they don't invent their own technology; they find something they like from another species, and adjust it to suit their own needs. Most of what they have comes from a race they call the Forerunners, those who built Halo. But since they went to war against us, they've found some odds and ends in our technology that appealed to their fancy as well."
"Namely, our shipboard AIs," John finished for him.
"Precisely. Now, they've never captured an intact AI, but you know as well as I do that even the most thorough erasure programs can't get everything. The Covenant have managed to put together bits and pieces of code over the years, and now they're coming up with their own AIs." Marks' gaze focused on John. "Master Chief, Cortana ran into one of those AIs when she hacked into the Ascendant Justice's system, before the ship was destroyed. Fortunately for her, it was incomplete and highly unstable."
"And the bad news?" Tannery interrupted.
Marks sighed. "The bad news is, ONI is now telling us that the Covenant have perfected their AI system. We believe that the Covenant AIs now have the potential to be as effective and deadly as ones like Cortana. We also know they've installed a fully functional prototype on one of their heavy cruisers."
"And how is this a lucky break for us?" Tannery interjected once again.
Marks grinned. "The ship crashed." Stunned silence followed the statement. He hurried to explain. "Obviously, the Covenant wanted to keep their little pet project a secret," he said. "According to what we've been able to piece together, the ship arrived from Covenant space about a week ago, but she came straight out of their docks. They hadn't finished running tests on her, so they needed to send her someplace quiet where they could keep her existence under wraps until they were ready to set her loose on our forces. They chose this system."
He tapped a sequence into the screen on his desk, and a large chart of a star system coalesced above the table in front of John and Tannery. It spun slowly, the motes of light that comprised it dancing and flickering as the image came into focus.
John recognized it immediately. "That's the Eridanus system," he said.
"That's correct," the Admiral confirmed. "The reasons for which they chose it are obvious. The planet was glassed years ago, and the rest of the system is now uninhabited. It's so far outside of space that we can reliably control that we don't even bother to send scouts out there anymore.
"As near as we can tell, the ship was in orbit above Eridanus II for about two days when it ran into an ion storm. They must have been caught with their shields down, because the ship ended up on the ground after sustaining heavy damage."
"How do we know all this?" Tannery asked. His voice was skeptical, but he was leaning forward in his seat, a sure sign that he was interested.
"Well, that's where the 'lucky' meets the 'break,'" Marks responded. "When the Covenant wiped out the Eridanus system, they missed a galactic survey probe. A whole network of them were set up in deep space across our sector of the galaxy, back when the Science Council of the UNSC was in its heyday. They're mostly obsolete, and they consume far more energy than is practical, so they were reprogrammed to report in only when they detected an anomaly."
"That's why the Covenant didn't kill this one," John put in. "It wasn't active when they hit the system. They couldn't see it."
"Either that, or they didn't think it was worth the energy it would take to destroy it," Tannery added.
Admiral Marks shrugged. "At this point, I'm not really concerned which is the case. Long story short, this obsolete survey probe detected the cruiser's subspace disturbance as it entered the system. Its onboard sensors hadn't been updated with Covenant engine specs, but when it logged the ship's arrival as an anomaly and sent a report to the Science Council headquarters, they knew what they were seeing and promptly notified us.
"Naturally, we wanted to find out what the Covenant was up to in the system. Like us, they had no reason to be there. So we sent a Longsword equipped with long range scanners to see what we could find. We found this."
Another image sprang up in place of the star system. It took John a moment to realize he was looking at a portion of Eridanus II's obsidian landscape. Right in the middle of the image was the wreckage of a huge starship, its iridescent purple hull plainly Covenant in design. The distinct hammerhead shape of its bow had been warped and distorted from the heat and force of its crash, but it was still recognizable.
"Gentlemen," the Admiral said into the silence of the conference chamber, "I give you the Echoes of Eternity. Or at least, what's left of her. I don't think even the Covenant could make her fly again."
"Forgive me for playing the devil's advocate today," General Tannery spoke up, "but she looks like any other Covenant heavy cruiser. How do we know that the Eternity is equipped with an AI?"
Marks smiled patiently. "Because the AI attacked the Longsword fighter we sent in." He gestured toward the image hovering above their table. "This was the only image the pilot was able to get of the Eternity herself. He tried to get closer, but as soon as he came into real-time transmission range, the AI invited itself aboard and started messing with his systems. We can surmise that their vessel has lost its subspace communications ability, because it tried to access his comm system first. He realized what it was doing and locked the systems down, just after he sent us this info. It got mad, and blew the heck out of his fighter."
"And the pilot?" John prompted.
Marks shook his head sadly. "Didn't stand a chance. The AI overrode all the safety interlocks and initiated an instantaneous engine core overload. He wouldn't even have had time to reach for his ejection console. And not even that would have gotten him clear in time."
"So where do we stand with this?" Tannery asked. He was still leaning forward in his seat, fingers steepled beneath his chin, his eyes glittering as they lingered on the hologram of the Eternity. The image looked deceptively still and peaceful, a mask for the danger that lay within.
"Put simply," Marks replied, "we've got a state-of-the-art Covenant heavy cruiser on the ground, largely intact, but disabled, in territory that we know well." He gave a grin that looked vaguely predatory. "And we're the only ones who know where it's at."
"What do you want us to do, Sir?" John asked.
"I want you to carry on a centuries-old Navy tradition, Master Chief. Take her as prize."