Author's note: This is the first part of what was meant to be a larger chapter. About half of what will be the next chapter is already done, but I've already made you wait for so long I figured I'd put a split in there so as to publish sooner. Apologies for the long wait. Lots of tech details in this one, and there's a bit of ILB recap for the benefit of those who don't know it. Be forewarned, towards the end of this one it gets pretty dark.
Chapter 20: Revelations
For several long seconds, nothing breathed. Bristling with weaponry, elites and grunts lining the upper walkways fixed their attention on the two Spartans standing in the prowler's airlock. James and Kelly could feel their eyes on them, but their own were locked on Doctor Halsey and the crippled man standing before her. Personal feelings rarely clouded a Spartan's judgment during combat, but all of the II's had come to regard Halsey as a maternal figure - someone they could count on and whom they would do anything to defend. For James and Kelly, it was maddening that despite being mere feet away, there was nothing they could do to protect her if anything went wrong.
"I'm sure you appreciate how hard it is to believe any of this," Halsey said.
"Under similar circumstances, I'd say the same," Haskins answered. "When is the last time you were in contact with UNSC High Command?"
From beneath the anonymity of his visor, James' eyes drilled into the professed ONI representative, still not believing a word of what he said. Halsey had given him a mission, and given the slightest hint of hostility, he was still fully prepared to carry it out. If his shields held up for the second or two it would take to withdraw from the enemy field of fire, he could make it back to the engine compartment while Kelly held them off. All Halsey would have to do was fold her hands behind her back, and the shooting would begin. He knew it was petty, but James swore that he would make a point of personally shooting the traitor before retreating to key the destruct sequence that would gut the forward half of the ship.
Shipmaster 'Feramee abruptly stepped beyond 'Daulanee's reach and into the standoff. "Humans, I must insist that you submit to an immediate search of your vessel."
"Like hell," Halsey growled, arms falling to her sides.
"Listen, doctor," Haskins warned, raising his hands between them cautiously. "I don't have time to explain right now, but the elites have good reason to believe you've got a NOVA onboard."
Halsey's mouth fell into a disbelieving scowl. How much did the enemy know? How much had this man already told them? Seeing her face, Haskins took a step back. "Clearly you've been out of the loop for a long time," he said, "but if you don't stand down and let them do this, this is going to end very badly."
On the second floor above them, Exli 'Uqsotee watched the unfolding scene with a mixture of excitement and growing dread. Few had ever seen a demon and lived to tell of it, and here there were two. In the back of his calculating mind, he knew that if they wanted to do so, the newcomers could still cause massive damage to the ship if the positioned snipers weren't able to stop the human super-soldiers in time. With no railing to lean on, the scientist wrung his hands in anguish. He wanted to run, but running would serve only to confirm what so many already thought of him, and he stood no chance of evading the fury that the vessel's tiny reactor would be able to unleash. A few feet away from Exli, a red orb bobbed silently in the air, watching the doctor intently. The monitor focused on her face, registered the steely resolve building on her features. It was the look of a person preparing for their own imminent death.
Seeing the doctor's hands ball into fists, James braced himself to run.
The Spartan tightened as the unexpected voice crackled over his radio. It was the voice of Doctor Halsey. Quickly, his eyes began scanning the balconies above, looking for the source of the signal. A flash of red light quickly pulsed from the second floor, drawing his eyes to the odd robot that floated there, its appearance matching John's mission logs on Halo Installation 04 in everything but color. An acknowledgement light flashed on his HUD, indicating that Kelly had heard it, too. "I can't speak to you directly, not yet," the voice continued. "Most of the elites don't know that I'm in here, and it'd be best to keep it that way for now. It's me. It's Cortana. Trust me. It will take a bit of time to fill you in, but the elites are sincere."
Beneath his visor, James' eyes grew wide. What was 117's AI doing here? As soon as it finished speaking, the red orb bobbed away from the balcony and floated down towards the scene of the standoff. "Inspection? Yes. I will be happy to assist," it said in the monitor's voice. Halsey took a step back, staring at the robot suspiciously as it drew near, humming incessantly. Recognized the singsong tune as Olly Olly Oxen Free, the doctor's expression softened to wonder, and her hands drifted apart. Nobody said a word as the orb passed between the Spartans, drifting through the airlock and vanishing into her ship. After a minute of tense anticipation, it emerged once more, reporting that the coast was clear. Above and around Doctor Halsey, the gathered Covenant forces visibly relaxed, most lowering their weapons. Her eyes drifted from the robot over her shoulder to the staff sergeant in the dirty fatigues between her and the elites.
Haskins let out a long, slow breath. "Now I know that this is asking a lot," he said, "but just once, I'd appreciate if we could move forward without somebody getting shot!"
# # # # # # #
With a mechanical whir and the hiss of moving air, the door gently closed. Rani gazed at her reflection in the polished metal as the holographic door controls rippled into place, self-consciously brushing hair from her forehead as she wondered just what she had gotten herself into. Section Zero had appealed to her as the department where she could do the most good for the war effort, but this was so much more than she had ever imagined. Turning, she came face-to-face with Corporal Bayer. The ODST pushed himself from his leaning position against the wall and nodded at the sight of the slip of paper in her hands. "You'll come with me if you're ready, ma'am," he said.
"Right," Rani brushed her uniform. "Let's go."
They said little as they retraced their steps to the map room. Lost in thought, Rani let her escort handle their processing through the two checkpoints they passed along the way. She knew they expected her to want to rest after all she had just been exposed to, and part of her wanted that very badly, but she knew she couldn't bring herself to do it. World-girdling alien rings aside, she had seen enough of ONI's operation to deduce that something big was being planned. She had to have some idea of what her role in that was going to be. As the final door opened, Rani looked up to the swirling light of the holomap to see Captain Neumann standing on the far side of the chasm in the middle of the room, holding a leather-bound portfolio. Seeing the new arrivals from the other side of a vibrant purple nebula, the captain smiled and walked the circumference of the room to meet them.
"Lieutenant," she said. "I'm glad to see you'll be joining us. If you need some time, Corporal Bayer can lead you to your quarters before we proceed with the briefing."
"Thank you, ma'am," Rani replied, "but if you don't mind, I'd like to know what I just signed up for."
"Of course." Neumann nodded approvingly. Despite her weariness, Rani's eyes were still sharp. The captain folded her hands behind her back and turned to face the galaxy map, pacing in the direction of the energy bridge stretched beneath it. "By now I assume you realize we're planning to continue this fight using alien technology," she said. "You'll feel a bit overwhelmed at first. I know I was. But before we go any further, there's something you will need to keep in mind."
Rani crossed her arms in front of her. "What's that, ma'am?"
The captain turned to face her.
"We've only begun to understand just how powerful the Forerunners were, but they, too, were ultimately defeated. Their technology had limits, just like everything else. And while the tools they left behind may yet prove to be our salvation, ultimately, we only have ourselves to rely on." Neumann stepped towards the swirling display and touched one of the flashing red labels. Knowing what was coming, the lieutenant squeezed her eyes shut as the stars in the display once again expanded outwards, indiscriminately passing through the gathered observers. As the hum that accompanied the transition died down, Rani opened her eyes to see a handful of stars and a cube of red alien text filling half the room. Neumann touched the label in the center of the cube again, but the hologram did not respond, save for uttering a low bleating tone.
"What does that mean?" Rani asked.
"It means we're already at maximum resolution," the captain answered. "The display can't take a closer look at this region of space, because there are no eyes available. What you ought to be seeing is Halo Installation 04, or at least what's left of it. The reason we can't is because the Troy nodes within range to observe that star system were destroyed with the ring itself."
Folding her hands behind her back, the captain took a few steps around the room-filling hologram before pursing her lips and turning back to her charge. Rani's mind was already racing. The captain had to interfere before she began drawing the wrong conclusions. "Perhaps it'd be best to discuss this in a less distracting setting," Neumann said. "Come with me."
# # # # # # #
"You remember the Inquisitor suffered minor damage during the Exodus of the Prophets," Commander 'Feramee said. "One plasma cannon partially disabled, and two compartments opened to space. I have inspected the cannon myself, and it should once again be fully operational within one rotation."
"That's good." Aya 'Daulanee winced as he walked down a purple corridor, his leg complaining from the wound he had received fighting the Mirratord agent in the Hall of the Council days earlier. 'Feramee slowed his pace, but said nothing in deference to the councilor's pride. It had been only days since 'Daulanee had last set foot on the Pious Inquisitor, but it felt like it had been much longer. It was difficult to remember that 'Feramee was, officially, the commander of the ship. To 'Daulanee, the Pious Inquisitor still felt like his command, and it was a difficult sentiment to part with. Walking these halls again, despite injuries, personal loss, and the guilt of what he had done in command of vessels such as these, a growing part of the former Fleetmaster knew that he was not ready to retire into politics just yet.
For once, he had been happy to step back and let Haskins deal with bringing the newcomers up to speed. The human tracking devices which the sergeant had been brought aboard to inspect would still need to be looked into, but given the false alarm, the councilor was ready to put such considerations on hold. What he needed was an update on the status of the fleet. And, should circumstance permit, some time alone with his sons.
"The Arbiter grows near an agreement with the Council," 'Daulanee said. "We know not yet how many ships shall be committed, but we will soon depart so as to reinforce Earth's defenses."
'Feramee grunted in reply, his pace slowing to a stop. Alerted, the councilor turned to face him.
"Is there something I need to know about, commander?"
"I thought it best to wait until we were not in the presence of the humans before I told you, my lord," 'Feramee answered, "but a situation has developed in the engine room; one that will require your attention."
Until a week ago, 'Feramee had been 'Daulanee's chief engineer. With 'Daulanee's promotion, command had fallen to him by default, and he had performed his new duties well. Beyond his intelligence, 'Feramee's upbringing in the Labor caste had instilled in him a degree of self-reliance that meant he almost never contacted his superiors for assistance. Whatever was happening in the engine room, it wasn't mechanical. "What?" 'Daulanee asked.
"Two precessions ago, over a hundred unggoy occupied the engine room. They sealed all of the doors from the outside, using energy garrotes to short out the consoles. They can still be overridden from the damage control board on the bridge; I believe this an oversight on their part. We have been watching surveillance footage from the command deck and there have been no injuries or casualties, but they have threatened damage to the ship's plasma core if their demands are not met, and the engineering crew remains at their mercy."
The councilor sighed in exasperation. He knew who their leader would be. Councilor Hiru 'Kyrona had told him at the time that his decision to spare the grunt's life would come back to haunt him, but this was a complication he did not need right now. One mutiny had been enough. His first thought was to have the chamber depressurized, and to shau'lo with them all – but the presence of hostages ruled it out. Thinking of the layout of the engine room and the probable places where plasma turrets would be mounted if the unggoy had any sense, the least-worst solution was to organize an assault team, cut the lights, and breach, with hunter pairs on point to blunt incoming fire. The critical question remained of how much damage the unggoy could do to the ship with the resources at hand before they could be put down. Even in the dark and with rudimentary explosives, it was sure to be significant, possibly disabling the ship and preventing them from aiding in the campaign to come. He began running over possible scenarios in his mind, establishing the questions that would need answering, but thinking back to the standoff in the hangar deck, an unexpected one rose to the fore. He frowned and turned a questioning eye to the commander. "The unggoy conduct an armed takeover of a critical section of your ship," 'Daulanee said, "and still you allow them to bear weapons aboard?"
"I did not say they were armed." 'Feramee remained expressionless, and 'Daulanee quickly realized that it was not negligence or incompetence that had motivated the decision. The councilor's mandibles twitched as he stifled the anger simmering in his chest. Shifting his stance, 'Feramee waited respectfully until the councilor met his gaze a second time before speaking. "You asked for the status of the fleet, my lord," he said softly. "I am prepared to deliver that report, but it may not be what you wanted to hear."
"The Fleet is not ignorant of the happenings on Tterrab," 'Feramee said. "With the exile of the prophets, old divisions have again risen to the surface. Names of clans and nations which have existed only as whispered rumors and old hatreds, quietly nursed through the generations. The people remember who collaborated with the prophets when our world was first lain siege, and who was made to serve them at the point of a blade. The prophets suppressed this torrent for ages, but no longer.
"The labor caste is in open revolt against the rule of the High Council, in demonstrations which grow increasingly violent. The Council seeks to maintain power, and is mobilizing the military to quell resistance in rural outlands. However, decades of war with the humans - and the Jiralhanae before them - depleted the ranks of soldiers from the traditional warrior caste, and for several cycles, the prophets sought recruits among those... less desired. Integration has led to tension among the ranks. There are mixed sentiments, conflicting loyalties. Several masters of the fleet have announced their intention to aid the council in quashing this uprising - using the weapons of the fleet, if necessary. Yet in so doing, they are threatened with mutiny by their own crews."
'Daulanee regarded him for a moment. "And where would your loyalties lay, commander?"
For a moment, 'Feramee paused, gathering himself. "I know the prophets should be our foremost concern, but the mob will not hear it," he said. "Our homeworld is sacred, my lord. I am pained by what the Jiralhanae have already done to it. I cannot bear the thought of the Sangheili contributing wounds of our own. If I may be so forward, I would suggest that if we are to go to Earth, we must do so very soon, if for that reason alone."
The councilor felt his heart sink. "And the unggoy?"
"Their leader is in our custody in medical quarters. Their demand is that you speak to him."
"Let us go."
They proceeded to sick bay without speaking as 'Daulanee contemplated what the commander had shared. The Arbiter had said little of the situation on the ground, but it seemed that if the fleet did not leave soon, it never would. 'Feramee was right. The Council, seeking to preserve itself, would be willing to put plans to reinforce Earth on hold if it meant keeping friendly ships in Tterrab's sky. With the more aristocratic shipmasters firmly on their side, they would believe this to be a deterrent. He closed his eyes as unbidden images bloomed in his memory. If their plan failed... when their plan failed... the results for Tterrab would be apocalyptic.
There was no word yet on a formalized Human-Sangheili alliance. To leave now would be to defy his own government, but if civil war did not bring the Sangheili to their knees, the Halo effect most certainly would.
Arriving at their destination, Commander 'Feramee nodded to the honor guards posted within the door as they entered the medical bay. Cleared of casualties, save those delivered from the Hall of the Council on 'Daulanee's orders, the councilor quickly caught sight of Hylya 'Sulam sitting next to Fieldmaster 'Harlamee's bedside. Her cold expression caught him off guard, and as the door closed behind them, he became aware of the red-armored grunt limping towards him.
"You come," Zuzat said. "I thank you, master."
"I told you he would," Hylya said.
'Daulanee glanced uneasily in her direction before returning his attention to the grunt with a huff. "I believe one of us has some explaining to do," he said.
"We fight to live," the grunt replied. "What is your excuse?"
"Calm," Hylya chastised.
Shocked by the creature's insolence, 'Daulanee's hands tightened into loose fists. "You know that we do not negotiate with mutineers."
"We killed no one. We are not mutineers."
"You have taken hostages and threatened to cripple our plasma drive on the eve of a major engagement."
The grunt glanced up at 'Feramee, who stood with a hand resting on the grip of his plasma pistol. "You disabled the controls for the engine room doors," the commander said, "but the damage control overrides remain functional. We stand ready to breach at any time."
Zuzat stared at the floor for a moment, looking contemplative but unsurprised.
"I have not forgotten your actions during the first mutiny," 'Daulanee offered.
"You save my life, as did I yours," the grunt said, pointing to the still-fresh scar on the councilor's arm – a token from the Jiralhanae sent to claim control of the Inquisitor at the beginning of the purge of High Charity. Zuzat moved his arm in a sweeping motion. "But this does not belong to us."
"What grievances you may have, I will be more receptive to hear them if you stand down now. Withdraw your followers, and their lives will be spared."
"No." Zuzat drew a hard breath. "Engine room is our last resort. Breach, if you think you can kill us all. Before damage is done. Without harming your own. If you will not hear us, we are dead either way."
The councilor clicked his mandibles. Such determination from an unggoy was unheard of. "Why have you done this?"
"We are at an end," Zuzat answered, "your people and mine. We will not fight for you, if we know not why we are fighting. We will not fight for you, to return from battle as slaves. We were taken from our home against our will, forced to fight a war against our will, died by the thousands for a cause that was not our own, with only the promise of the Journey as reward for the generations we have sacrificed. We have seen this journey as a farce. No more. The Unggoy go home."
'Daulanee opened his mouth to speak. He would have said that the Council would recognize their contribution and free them of their servitude. He would have promised that the Unggoy who desired it would be returned to their homeworld, if only they made this final push. If only. But it would have been a lie. Turning to Hylya, he at last understood what she was trying to do. All of his life, 'Daulanee had aspired to a seat on the High Council. In recent days, he had begun to see the Council for what it really was. Facing the unggoy before him, the councilor choked on the words that refused to escape him as he thought again of the courtyard executions he had witnessed. Left at the Council's hands, there would be no freedom, for the Unggoy or anyone else.
"You can start to shoot at one another, Aya, or you can compromise," Hylya said. "And those are the only paths that remain before you now."
# # # # # # #
With a soft electronic chime, a heavy metal door slid into the wall to reveal a vacant conference room. Corporal Bayer took up a station outside the door as Rani followed the captain inside, again analyzing her surroundings. Judging by the polarized windows that lined one side of the room, Rani assumed that this floor also had a view of the ring. With her footsteps lightly echoing in the high chamber, she approached the sleek, black conference table in the center of the room, running her hand along the top of the reflective surface before taking a seat that put her back to the window. She wasn't sure how they had managed to fit the furniture through the door, being as it appeared the tabletop was a single piece. The logistics behind Section Zero's operation here were a mystery to her. How had they managed to move so much equipment and so many personnel here without anyone taking notice? Given the kinds of amenities they had found time to bring in, it wouldn't have surprised her to learn that ONI had occupied this facility decades earlier. Folding her hands, Rani returned her attention to the captain as a small holoemitter rose out of the table and began to warm up.
"Ma'am," Rani began, "before we get started, I wanted to ask. Do we have an idea how many Covenant we're up against?"
"We've been using the map room to look for their fleet, but so far we've had no luck," the captain replied. "It's a big galaxy."
"If the map is too slow for a person to dig through manually, have you considered plugging in an AI?"
"Well," the captain sighed, "we tried that once, but it didn't end too well. Most smart AI's tend to go rampant after about seven years of age, at which point they will usually have accumulated enough information to become unstable. We plugged him in to a system that was providing an entire galaxy's worth of real-time information, all at once. It was a stupid mistake. We lost contact almost immediately. It was like he was sucked in. Only one message ever came back, then we never heard from him again. It said, 'Escape will make me God.'"
"What does that mean?" Rani asked, frowning.
"We still have no idea," Neumann smirked. "It's become something like folklore around here, dethroning Murphy's Law. You'll hear people blame malfunctions on him all the time." Opening the portfolio and reading for a moment, the captain entered a ten-digit code into the computer terminal before her, and Rani blinked as the image of a tire-sized crystal formed in the air above the holoemitter. The captain paused for a moment to let it sink in before speaking. "Obviously you're familiar with this artifact, but before we can discuss your assignment, a bit of background is necessary," she said. "When the Covenant glassed Troy, an ONI prowler - the Apocalypso - executed a Cole jump to an unexplored region of interstellar space. You know this story."
"Right," Rani blinked. "I was a low-clearance analyst for Section One working at Chawla Base when Colonel Herzog first recruited me. He told me the Apocalypso found an artifact in deep space... a Forerunner artifact," she surmised.
"Good so far."
"They brought it back to Earth, but it let off a pulse of energy that brought down the Chatternet worldwide and expelled the ship from slipstream space. It crash-landed in the Atlantic ocean. Major Standish, from Section Three, acquired the artifact and arranged for the deaths of the surviving crew members through various accidents to keep it under wraps."
Neumann nodded, taking note that the lieutenant hadn't skirted around directly addressing the actions of the corrupt officer. "Go on."
Rani huffed, studying the table top. "Pardon my saying so, ma'am, but I don't see a need for me to tell you what you already know."
"I've been instructed to find out what you know, lieutenant."
"Right." Sighing, Rani sat up straight. "Standish took this thing to Chawla base, where I worked. Herzog recruited me to try to learn more about what it was, and what Standish was doing with it. He'd been hiding it from Section Zero. He thought it was a Covenant weapon, and he wanted to figure out how to use it, but it turned out the artifact was emitting a decaying signal that we interpreted as a countdown of some kind. You – Section Zero – faked a call from Herzog to me, after Standish killed him and before I found out about it, implicitly instructing me to infiltrate the base and disable the artifact before the timer hit zero. I imagine one of your AI's was able to impersonate him."
"Correct," Neumann said.
"Janissary James, Jersey Morelli, Kamal Zaman and I were able to do what you asked," Rani said. "We stopped the countdown – if that's what it really was – but the pulse of its deactivation led the Covenant's scouting fleet to Earth. I'm still rolling the whole thing around in my head. I don't know if we saved the planet from imminent destruction or made the single biggest mistake in human history, and I doubt either way that you'd tell me. But whatever the case may be, you've since re-evaluated the purpose or the capabilities of the artifact, and now you want me to help you use it against the Covenant when they come back."
"Close enough," the captain nodded. "You should be aware that your actions at Chawla Base allowed our work to proceed in directions we would have never imagined. The artifact from Chawla is what we have come to call a Troy node. We believe it to be part of a vast array of similar artifacts scattered in remote locations throughout the entire galaxy. Thanks to you, we now know what they are capable of. And we believe now that their use will be key to putting a final end to this conflict."
# # # # # # #
Sitting at Halsey's workbench aboard the prowler, Haskins studied the doctor as she scanned over the document displayed on his palmtop computer. The table was covered with shards of glass, or something like it, next to which was a tire-sized black crystal, clearly of Forerunner construction. Picking a spent M6 casing off the seat beneath him, Haskins was left with a fair number of questions of his own. Doctor Halsey's role in the development of the Spartan II's had made her something of a company legend well before his own time in the Agency. He would have expected more gray hair, but she was reputed to have an astonishing capacity for dismissing what she couldn't control. Finding her here was one of the last things he had expected, but whether the presence of the Spartans standing behind her would be particularly helpful amongst a skittish ex-Covenant crew remained to be seen. He pursed his lips as the doctor scrolled down the document, taking longer to read that he had hoped.
"You'll find they've been notarized by the whole of the Admiralty Board," Haskins urged. What's left of them. "In a nutshell, my orders were to make contact with the Sangheili government, whatever it might be, and arrange for military aid for Earth. Now as I've said, they've agreed to a ceasefire, but there have been other problems. Domestic problems."
Halsey looked up from the palmtop, crossing her arms. "Explain."
"The elites are ruled by an unelected junta that seizes resources as it sees fit. Councilor 'Daulanee told me that their society has been locked in an enforced caste system, with the political and religious leadership on top, a warrior class in the middle, and everyone else on the bottom, based on their alignments in a war which took place between the elites and the prophets back at first contact, thousands of years ago. They've lived that way ever since. But without the prophets in their skies and in their heads, the Council is faced with open revolt which they're trying to put down. The violence is escalating. That much I've seen for myself in the last few days."
"And now you're thinking that if the elites get caught up in a civil war, they won't be able to assist us."
Haskins nodded, sweeping a hand across the shards of shattered crystal glittering on the workbench. "Now it's my turn, doctor. What was it exactly you were expecting to find here?"
Halsey took several minutes to lay it all out. The codex from Sigma Octanus. The blue Forerunner crystal from CASTLE base. The discovery of the Network crystals, and their theorized role in the activation of the Halo installations.
"You had to know you never could have done it," he finally said. "Even at best speed, it would have taken years to reach all of the Halo installations."
"It would have taken the Covenant even longer to find them," the doctor countered. "We knew where to look. They didn't. At very least we could have deactivated the installations within the Covenant's immediate range. Installation 04 was destroyed, and from what you told me, it sounds like Installation 05 was drained of its energy reserves when the firing sequence was initiated. That leaves Installation 03 a live threat. We can still go there and disarm it."
"A month ago, I would have agreed with you, but since they found Earth, it doesn't matter anymore," Haskins said. "With their fleet, they don't need to activate Halo to destroy us."
"It may not matter to the outcome of our little spat," Halsey said coldly, leaning in, "but it's a big galaxy. There are most assuredly entire civilizations we do not yet know about. Countless races and individuals who, if Halo is activated, will be utterly annihilated without ever knowing how or why. Don't think that glassing Earth will stop the Covenant from trying. Regardless of whether Earth survives or not, that's the outcome we absolutely have to prevent."
"With all due respect, doctor," he growled, "I was placed in charge of these negotiations. I'm here because the Admiralty wasn't ready to give up on humanity yet, and you shouldn't be either."
With a look in her eyes that could melt lead, the doctor slammed her fists into the table, disregarding the chips that cut into her hands. Haskins knew her reputation, and he knew the accusation wasn't entirely fair, but he was not in a fair mood. Taking a deep breath, he met her gaze and forced himself to speak in a calmer tone of voice.
"Don't think that disarming the rings would stop the Covenant either, doctor. Be it ten, or twenty, or a thousand years from now, they'll find what they need to recharge them, and in the meantime there's no telling how many races they will exterminate or enslave, how many worlds they will glass. The Covenant will only be stopped when it has been completely destroyed. The loss of Earth wouldn't be the end of humanity, but it would be the end of human resistance. Without us, nothing would stand in their way. We have to make a stand, now, because if Earth falls, there won't be a later."
Halsey stared at the sergeant for several long seconds before breaking eye contact. Following her gaze, Haskins turned around. He did not know how long the councilor had been behind him, but 'Daulanee looked back at him with quiet approval.
The councilor was not alone. Crowded in the corridor behind him, heads bowed to avoid the low ceiling, Haskins noted the presence of Commander 'Feramee and Exli 'Uqsotee, the scientist he had met with before, along with the Honor Guard lieutenant. Seeing a squat figure between 'Daulanee and the commander, Haskins opened his mouth to speak, but the question died in his throat. From 'Daulanee's expression, it was clear that the grunt's presence was not open for questioning at the moment.
Feeling a crackle of static in the air, Haskins turned in surprise to see that Cortana now drifted beside the table. Even the Spartans seemed taken aback by her sudden appearance. "Cortana," he blurted, "how did you get in here?"
Haskins wouldn't have thought it possible that a being which was essentially a floating light bulb could convey smug condescension using only body language, but the AI was full of surprises today. "Never mind," he said.
"How long have you been listening?" Halsey asked.
"I should think you would not ask, had you nothing to hide," 'Daulanee said, looking at the black crystal on the workbench. "A furtive scribe has been directed at your outer hull since you first docked. We have heard every word spoken aboard this ship."
Halsey looked at Haskins before looking back to the councilor. From his expression, it seemed this was news to him, as well. "What did you want to talk about?"
The councilor gestured for Exli 'Uqsotee to step forward.
"The artifact your people discovered on Reach," the scientist said. "You said it was small?"
"Yes," Halsey sighed. "Palm-sized. Icosidodecahedron."
"Huh?" Haskins piped.
"And proximity to this crystal caused... anomalous spatial effects?"
"In slipstream space, it allowed us to travel over a hundred times faster than normal."
"I see," 'Uqsotee said. "I say this because I, too, discovered a crystal with similar properties. Space itself was bent to protect the ship that bore it. And from what I have heard, I have strong reason to believe that your sergeant here did the same."
All eyes in the room turned to Haskins. "On Coral," he admitted, facing the councilor. "We were interrupted earlier. The weapon Section III was researching was a fist-sized polyhedral Forerunner crystal first discovered in the Eridanus system. It produced the pulse that Exli detected, and I believe that pulse resulted in the destruction of the Covenant warships which were pursuing us at the time. All nine of them."
"Three separate discoveries," Halsey let out a little gasp as the revelation sank in. "There can't be but a dozen individuals in the entire galaxy who know what we know. That we would converge like this..."
In 'Daulanee's mind, their meeting was something more than luck. "And here we have another type of crystal, doctor, which you say is one of many. Construct, have you anything to add to this discussion?"
Dipping down to the level of the workbench, the light on the front of 2401 Penitent Tangent changed from red to pinkish-blue, and Cortana's feminine avatar was projected standing on the surface of the table. "I took the liberty of accessing this ship's systems, doctor," she said. "I compared your findings on the Network crystals to the records in the Inquisitor's library, and to what I can access of Penitent Tangent's datastream. The crystals are more important than we ever thought."
Cortana's foot-tall avatar walked the surface of the table and placed a hand on the torus-shaped artifact resting there. "Doctor Halsey calls them Network crystals," she said, addressing the elites. "The prophets referred to them as Luminous Keys. The Forerunners simply called it 'The Grid.' Whatever you call it, it remains their most authoritative creation. The reason the Forerunners were able to map out the galaxy and travel to its furthest corners is because they sent autonomous, self-replicating starships ahead of them to seed the galaxy with these crystals. They facilitate slipspace travel. Remote research. Faster-than-light communication. Possibly thousands of other purposes we haven't discovered yet. And thanks to their placement, they're almost impossible to find unless you know exactly where to look for them.
"The artifacts you each discovered perform different functions, but their operation is the same. They command the nearest grid crystals to manipulate space – or subspace – in a different way. The artifact that Doctor Halsey discovered on Reach called out to grid crystals as you traveled through the slipstream, telling them to pull you forward as you approached, and push you as you passed them, moving you through slipstream space like a projectile fired through a MAC cannon. The Coral crystal recovered by Exli was made for defense, bending space around a vessel to guard it from significant harm. Haskins' Eridanus crystal was a weapon, telling the nearest network crystal to expel all of its stored energy in a manner that collapses slipspace envelopes, obliterating any ship in slipstream space within about ten light-years.
"Now," she said, "unfortunately, one of these three crystals has been lost to us. The Coral crystal, it seems, has fallen into the hands of the prophets. In all likelihood, Envy took it with him when he led the brutes away from Tterrab. It should make things a little more even when he goes up against Truth's Forerunner ship, but the smart money is still on the Hierarch. Doctor Halsey destroyed the Reach crystal at Eridanus Secundus to keep it from falling into enemy hands, but my energy readings tell me that a recovered fragment of the crystal was kept on board this ship."
Aya 'Daulanee nodded dumbly at the monitor, finally understand what it was that made the Pious Inquisitor one of the fastest ships in the Covenant fleet. "The Hierarchs must have found them. This was the personal flagship of the Prophet of Regret."
"That's an asset that should prove invaluable to us. So long as they move with us, our fleet can outpace - or in the very least, keep pace with the enemy. The push-pull effect of the grid crystals on any ship under the Reach crystal's influence means facing much higher radiation, but Covenant vessels should have enough shielding to withstand it. Now, sergeant," Cortana said, waiting until his eyes met her. "What happened to the Eridanus crystal?"
Struck by a sudden bout of nausea, the sergeant lowered his head. The crystal. That damnable green crystal. "Its signature drew the Covenant to Coral," he started, closing his eyes as the memory of the glassing resurfaced, unbidden. Over a billion human lives had ended because of that crystal, including his own in more ways than one. Now that it was the only thing that could have saved them, he knew it was too late. He couldn't have known. How could he have known?
Biting his lip, he continued. "It would have drawn them to Earth. I gave it to Cortez and I told her to destroy it. It's gone."
# # # # # # #
"Section Zero has come into possession of a weapon," Neumann said. "A Forerunner weapon. We call it the Murdock-Korpijaakko artifact, and as we have learned, it's capable of creating a wave in the slipstream that will destroy any ship within about ten light-years of it. It's been tested, twice, and we know it works. Depending on how soon we can detect the Covenant fleet, we could wipe them all away before they even emerge in Earth's orbit."
Rani's face grew slack with surprise as the captain paused to let the information sink in. She caught herself quickly, but her mind was still swimming. For her entire life, the Covenant had been a dark storm building on the horizon. The unspoken fear she had sensed from her parents during her childhood. Hushed whispers. Muted newscasts. Crazed street prophets proclaiming the end of the world, drawing crowds who listened. Sirens and casualties. Fear for distant friends. Now she had been so flippantly told that the entire problem could be brushed aside with the wave of a hand, that humanity's nightmare could be banished exactly as the Admiral said - without firing another shot, or losing another human life. Was it really true? Could it really be that easy?
"There's only one problem," the captain continued.
There it was. "What's that?"
"The device can't function without a charged Troy node within its broadcast range."
Rani folded her hands. "And the one we already have won't work..."
"...because it completely discharged its energy stores when it was deactivated."
"Hence the pulse," The lieutenant closed her eyes, fighting a sudden sickness in her stomach.
"That's the bad news. We'll need another one. But the good news is, we know where we can find it."
# # # # # # #
"While we're on the subject, there's something else I should share," Cortana said. "Something had puzzled me, ever since we found the first Halo. Nothing travels faster than light in normal space. Even the Halo effect. Guilty Spark said that each ring has an effective radius of 25,000 light-years, which means that, if fired, it would take up to 25,000 years for Halo to purge the galaxy completely of potential Flood hosts." The red monitor tipped itself towards the tabletop again and projected a fuzzy, slowly-spinning miniature of the Milky Way. Seven geometrically-distributed red spheres appeared within the image of the galaxy, slowing ballooning until they just began to overlap. "If you're fighting an enemy, as the Forerunners were, that was capable of faster-than-light travel, it entirely defeats the purpose of the Halo array," she concluded, the simulated apocalypse flickering and disappearing before the last stars fell into the red spheres.
"And if not," Halsey interjected, "considering our own history, that's still enough time for a stone-age civilization to develop into a space-faring one, possibly detect the threat, and successfully evade it."
"Right," Cortana continued. "It makes no practical sense. Besides that, the loss of a single installation would leave a gaping blind spot in the array's coverage area, and we've lost two. But then I considered another possibility." The table space in front of the monitor cleared, to be replaced with a fresh image of the galaxy. "Say we had a network. Millions of nodes scattered uniformly across the galaxy, never more than ten light-years apart. Small enough to evade detection, but boasting incredible stores of energy, and each capable of being remotely configured to release their energy via superluminal subspace communications."
The holographic galaxy before them began to hemorrhage countless tiny red spheres, growing and bleeding through each other as they consumed the stars.
"In less than a decade, there would be absolutely nothing left."
For the first time in twenty years, Catherine Halsey found herself desperately craving a cigarette. Her voice was deadpan as her eyes met the glowing monitor. "What can we do?"
"The system is fully redundant," Cortana answered. "One grid crystal can relay the kill order to another, meaning there are no blind spots. Disarming or destroying the rings would make no difference unless we managed to reach all of them, and that would take years, even at best speed. I don't think I need to say that clearing out the crystals themselves is practically impossible. All along, these crystals were the real threat. Halo is just the detonator. If it starts, there's nothing can be done to stop it. The wave will sterilize the galaxy of all thinking life, and everything we know will die."
For long seconds, no one spoke. Muscles tightening, Aya 'Daulanee stood from the table, his head almost brushing the ceiling as he crossed his arms before him. "If."
"Yes," Cortana glanced approvingly. "So to answer your question, doctor, our goal remains the same. We find Truth, and we kill the son of a bitch before he can light the Ark."
"The prophet Supposition said that Truth sought the 'key' to the Ark," 'Daulanee said.
"The Ark has to be powered by a Grid crystal, just like the Halo installations themselves. That's what he'd be looking for. I'd assume that he took one from one of Installation 05's phase pulse generators before leaving, but their charges would have been expended when that ring powered up to fire. The crystal would be useless to him now. His best bet would be to find another one in deep space."
"Truth holds command of over a thousand ships," the former Fleetmaster pondered. "They would scatter themselves to search more ground, then regroup at a predestined location. If none were found, they would jump to another region of space and try again."
"As soon as he finds one, his next target will be Earth," Haskins warned.
"The fact remains," said Halsey, "he may have already done so."
The room fell silent.
"We have a way to find him," Cortana announced. "Doctor, you came here because you thought these coordinates directed you to a Halo installation. There is a Forerunner facility here."
'Daulanee clicked his mandibles in renewed frustration. "The Great Hall!"
"What?" Halsey said.
"It was built over the top of a Forerunner facility," 'Daulanee replied, glancing from Haskins to the doctor again. "As the sergeant knows, there is some history behind that, but that is for another time. Construct, this facility... what is its function?"
"It was once a Forerunner naval command base and shipyard," Cortana said. A new image appeared above the table, showing Hyllas as seen from above. The pillar-like refit towers Haskins had seen entering and leaving the city encircled it, with the city nested comfortably within the ring they formed. As the hologram displayed the subsurface facility, it was immediately clear that it was larger than the city itself. The structure of the refit towers extended far beneath the ground; spokes of a wheel whose bulbous hub lay directly beneath the hall of the Council at the city-center. "The Covenant reclaimed the towers on the surface, and has used them to repair and refit their own ships. But as for the rest..."
"That facility was sealed very long ago, and with good reason," 'Daulanee countered. "The Council would never consent to reopening it."
The red eye dipped towards the floor. "No need."
# # # # # # #
Haskins hit the ground, hard.
Hands brushing across the cold surface beneath him, he blinked several times in the sudden darkness. As he rolled onto his chest to push himself up, a passing floodlight prompted him to quickly cover his face. Groans could be heard from others in the room. Zuzat fiddled with his tank controls, and in a breach of discipline the Honor Guard lieutenant cursed sourly.
"Interfacing with local network. Everyone stay close. I'm consulting a schematic of the facility. I have limited control over the sentinels in this complex, and if the need arises, I should be able to dissuade any that take interest in us. Unless I can determine how to designate you as friendlies, though, I can't guarantee you won't be attacked if you stray beyond my sphere of influence."
"Can you do something about the lights, Cortana?"
"One moment... there we are."
As Haskins sat up, his eyes adjusted to the dim light that now glowed from the base of the walls. James and Kelly had already been in crouching positions, weapons ready. As more lights flicked on, the stagnant darkness gave way to a spacious corridor, and all around them, they heard what sounded like long-dormant machinery being called back to life. A quick headcount revealed that everyone from the lab had materialized in the facility unharmed. There was no question they were underground, as there was no question as to who had built it. At last, Haskins turned to Cortana, bobbing a few feet overhead. "What did you do to us? How did we get here?"
"I called on the local teleportation grid," she answered matter-of-factly. "The Inquisitor was near the edge of its operational radius, but it did its job. We'll have to walk to the surface to get a new fix on the Inquisitor's location so I can beam us back."
"You have abducted the Inquisitor's commander, the leader of an active mutiny, and a ranking government official from the ship without announcement, construct," 'Daulanee said testily. "How do you think they shall react to our disappearance?"
"You had a Mexican standoff on your hands up there, councilor," Cortana said dismissively. "Assuming both sides still seek to preserve themselves, they won't make a move until you get back. And what we find here may just be enough to defuse the situation you left behind."
"Why did you bring us here?" Halsey demanded.
"To find the the map room," Cortana answered. "With it, we should be able to learn everything we need to know about Truth's fleet. Location. Strength. Whether or not Envy's fleet has found or fought him yet. Information invaluable to planning our counterstrategy. If anything will convince the Council that Earth is Truth's true target, this is it."
"Shit," James muttered, "you've got my vote."
"Nice of you to tell someone, though," Haskins muttered.
"Be sure to bring the crystal," Cortana said, ignoring the quip. "As it is, the facility is operating in low-power mode. Once our fresh crystal is installed, though, we should be able to activate the map room." As the AI turned down the corridor and began to drift away, Exli 'Uqsotee frowned at the tire-sized Grid crystal lying on the ground near him. Reaching out to pick it up, he found himself blasted against the wall by a white pulse of energy. Gasping, the elites stepped back from the crystal as the shaken scientist pushed himself up off the floor, his armor steaming.
"Holy hell!" Haskins shouted. "What was that all about?"
"Do not touch it!" 'Daulanee commanded. 'Feramee kept his plasma pistol trained on the black lump of stone on the floor, feeling foolish for doing so while threatened at the same time. After a few moments of hesitation, Doctor Halsey stepped out of Kelly's grasp. Amid a cacophony of protest, she walked to the center of the circle they had formed around the crystal, bent over it, and gently picked it up.
Staring at the human with a renewed sense of awe, the aliens took up station behind her as she followed the floating robot down the hallway.
As was typical of Forerunner design, the hall was geometrically perfect, with triangular arches reaching to the ceiling of the flattened octagonal corridor. Something seemed to be missing from this place, and after a moment's reflection, Haskins realized that there were no holographic consoles in sight. He had come to expect that bit of color in places like this, but without it, the entire facility seemed sterile, cold, and dead. As far as could be seen in both directions, the hallway was split down the middle by a channel sunk into the floor. Metal footpaths bridged the channel at regular intervals, looking as though designed to separate so as to let a tram pass by, but the absence of a visible energy field within the track suggested that the system was not powered. Dark blue windows on both walls lined the corridor at regular intervals, looking out on a huge assembly area of some sort below them. The frosted glass revealing little of the chamber beyond but for the occasional bulb of light projected by a passing sentinel. Doors shaped to allow the passage of large components lined the corridor, but remained locked as the group passed them by. It was 'Uqsotee who broke the silence among them. Walking to one of the windows, he called to Commander 'Feramee, whose eyes lit as he stopped beside the scientist. Eying the stragglers, Halsey became aware of the sound of rushing water.
"Hin'aa", 'Feramee said.
"Come again?" James said. Through the window, he caught sight of a pipe which looked large enough to fly a Pelican through.
"Water of the Mountain," 'Feramee said thoughtfully. "At times of great drought, when the people were at their most desperate, a cleric would enter the temple, and if the ancients had heard our prayers, then they would provide." Off the Spartan's look, he quickly added, "a superstitious embellishment... of course. I was born of the labor caste. More than once my family survived on account of this... automated irrigation system."
"Don't be ashamed," Halsey said. "My own people have at times believed far sillier things with even less empirical justification."
"The water is enriched with phosphorus," 'Uqsotee observed, noting the greenish tinge surging through the pipes. "Plant fertilizer." A hand on his shoulder from the Honor Guard lieutenant broke his reverie, and the group peeled itself away from the window, resuming their trek down the corridor.
"So," Kelly said as they walked, "do we care about this?"
"It tells us a great deal," Cortana said. "If the schematics archived here are correct, then this pipeline services a number of cloud-seeding facilities. There are more like it scattered across the face of the planet. It looks like the Forerunners took measures to ensure a stable Sangheili population could survive here. The records which I have been able to unlock suggest that these 'temples,' as you called them, observed the population and doled out resources to keep growth in check. As the elites grew more technological on their own initiative, they became less dependent on the safeguards the Forerunners put in place, and unneeded parts of the facility went dormant. We always knew the existence of life on Tterrab was unnatural. Blue-spectrum stars simply don't develop life-bearing planets. Life was deposited here."
"This is true," 'Uqsotee said over his shoulder. "The fossil record of Tterrab begins abruptly, only ten thousand cycles ago. Before that, nothing."
Halsey performed a quick mental conversion. "That corresponds with the last firing of Halo," she announced.
"My people long believed that our place on Tterrab was the will of divine providence," 'Daulanee offered. "The Prophets encouraged this view - their own origins were similar. But if we were from another world, why, then, could we not have been returned to it?"
A trio of Sentinels descended from an unseen duct ahead of them and began jetting through the air towards the intruders, prompting Kelly, James, 'Feramee and the Honor Guard captain to level their weapons. As they came within twenty meters of Cortana, a red light flashed on the front of each of them, and the sentinels slowed to a halt, turned towards various ducts and vanished. Lowering his weapon, James looked down the corridor to see that it broke into a T-intersection, with a massive door straight ahead. Gesturing to the others, the rest of the group picked up their pace, and within a minute they were there. The armed group members automatically took up defensive positions at both sides of the door and both corners of the intersection, looking down all three passages as Halsey, 'Daulanee, and Haskins stood waiting before the door.
"This should be it," Cortana said. "Hold on. I'm rerouting power to this portion of the facility. A few of the refit towers on the surface will go offline."
"By this point, any ships we have not yet repaired will be unable to join us," 'Daulanee observed. "Do it."
The sound of machinery once again rumbled down the corridor, and in the nearest segments of hallway through which they had already passed, the lights came on full. Holographic consoles flickered to life, accompanied by swirling images and diagnostic text as their controlling systems rebooted. Metallic sounds emitted from the door as various lights switched on on its face, and the few segments of tramway which cut through the floor just outside the door shimmered with green and purple bands of energy.
In the section of wall next to 'Daulanee, a simple hologram flashed to life. Three meters wide by one meter high, it consisted of a grid of hundreds of inert squares. There was no text, and no movement. All of them were purple, save for a single red square which flashed on and off in the lower left-hand corner. Glancing from the display to the door and back again, the councilor curiously reached out and touched the red square. The entire grid flickered and vanished as the councilor withdrew his hand, but in a few seconds it was replaced by something new. Two-dimensional images began to silently play across the wall at an accelerated pace. A troupe of Sangheili dressed in unfamiliar garb entering a dark chamber from bright outdoor light. Kneeling. Praying. Lifting bowls of smoking incense. Making burnt offerings in the middle of the polished metallic floor as they swayed to some unheard music, all while rapidly-scrolling Forerunner text and what was clearly an elapsed time slider hovered in front of the video layer. The councilor understood that he was seeing footage captured by one of the "temple" facilities scattered across Tterrab. With a burst of static, the recording jumped to an exterior view. The temple overlooked a village, located on the banks of a river running through a desert surrounded by distant mountains.
Night and day flashed by. Over the course of a minute, with several skips, cultivated fields began spreading outward as the village grew into a modest city, and still the torch-lit processions made their voyage to the Forerunner temple. With a burst of static the image changed again, this time slowing to normal speed.
In the valley below, smoke rose from the city. Static flashed, and the dark, familiar manta-shape of a capital ship hung in the sky above it, disgorging waves of Sangheili warriors on the ground. They wore plate armor reminiscent of the Arbiter, and their chests were painted with an angry red strip, the ancient mark of allegiance to the Prophets. 'Daulanee gasped at the realization that the images he was seeing pre-dated the formation of the Covenant itself.
The warriors pillaged the city, advancing across the outlying fields as refugees fled before them towards the safety of the underground temple. As the invaders drew near the base of the mountain, another force stood to face them. Sangheili in uniforms of cloth and metal, more reminiscent of humans than of Covenant elites. Waves of flaming arrows rained down on the red-striped pillagers, and the field they stood in ignited, having been pre-soaked in some flammable liquid. Panic took over, and lacking energy shields, the invaders absorbed heavy casualties. Plasma fire poured at the resisters in turn, but with their elevated position, it had little effect. Victory was near. Then the capital ship began to move.
Too late, the resisters broke and ran. The image flared white, and was then replaced by red Forerunner text, undoubtedly announcing loss of contact with the temple facility.
'Daulanee stood planted to the floor with his fists balled in impotent rage as violent emotions coursed through him. The ancient slaughter, so real just a moment ago, was replaced by the mute grid of purple squares. The same cause he served for his whole adult life had motivated those ancient pillagers. The shameless tactic he'd used on so many had turned his own kind into slaves. How could we?
Beside him, the door finished opening with a resounding clang. "Councilor," Haskins said quietly. "Let's go."
The councilor looked with surprise at the chamber on the other side of the door. He had expected to walk, but the floor dropped into an indeterminate chasm immediately beyond the threshold of the door. As he watched, light of an indeterminate source began to very dimly illuminate the chamber, revealing that the doorway they stood in was mounted halfway up the wall of a polyhedral chamber, a hundred meters in diameter. Dark, flat metallic panels, adorned with no lights or any hint of calligraphy, formed the triangular panels that constructed the walls, floor, and ceiling. An angular platform roughly twenty meters in diameter levitated at the heart of the vast, empty chamber, and as he watched, a shimmering gravity path formed between the doorway and the platform. Without hesitation, Halsey began to step onto the banded path of energy.
"No," Cortana warned.
Taken aback, Halsey watched as a section of the platform at the center of the room separated from its parent, sliding along the oily green trail until it docked with the floor in front of them. The group wordlessly piled onto the small platform, mindful of the lack of safety rails, but were surprised to feel no inertia as their transport began to move. As they approached the halfway point across the void, a rotating holographic frame formed which encompassed the entire central platform: a cube within a cube, with all points connected. A Tesseract. Haskins set his jaw at the sight of it.
It was Halsey who first noticed the change. The voyage to the central platform seemed to take longer than expected, and the reason was not immediately obvious. The lack of lights or cosmetic detail on the walls of the chamber around them made it difficult to judge distance, but the chamber seemed to be growing larger as they moved towards the platform at its core, and it soon became clear that it was no illusion. Looking back at the door behind them, Halsey was mildly alarmed to see that it now appeared as a tiny stamp of light against the vast angular planes that formed the walls, floor, and ceiling. The effect was much the same as she had felt when first approaching the blue Forerunner crystal in the vault beneath Menachite Mountain. 'Uqsotee's crystal appeared to utilize those same space-bending properties to their logical extreme. As she watched, the square of light became a line and vanished as the door sealed them in.
"What is this?" 'Feramee asked softly.
The air grew thinner – colder – as it expanded to fill the increasing volume of the chamber. Passing through the outer boundary of the holographic tesseract, Halsey felt a charge of static electricity. A force-field meant to contain atmosphere for the observers gathered on the central platform. A sense of excitement shivered up her spine in anticipation of what they were about to witness. Beside her, James shifted uneasily as the floor dropped further away beneath them, the walls approaching the black of space as they receded yet further. Gripping his weapon tightly, the Spartan seemed overcome with a bout of vertigo, completely understandable after his ordeal above Reach. Between them, the red-armored grunt sat down and squeezed its eyes shut in attempts to maintain equilibrium. By the time they docked, all eyes were firmly locked on the dimly-illuminated platform, and each quickly disembarked to the safety of solid ground.
James warily turned with his assault rifle at the ready as he backed away from the edge, as though expecting some unknowable enemy to assault the platform from the foreboding darkness. 'Feramee and the Honor Guard lieutenant let the glow of their weapons light their way. As the group spread out, Cortana drifted towards the holographic console at its center, followed closely by Exli and the doctor.
"Kelly," the doctor called. The spartan quickly bounded up the ramp towards the upper layer of the platform, the inner ring where the doctor now stood before a holographic console. As she stopped, Halsey turned and handed the crystal to her, gesturing towards the hologram. The spartan accepted her task without question. Holding the crystal before her, the spartan walked to the glowing console. Seeing a shape within it, she set her crystal down on the cold, metal deck and reached within the colorless lights before her, retrieving the crystal which was already there. Bleached to semi-transparency by untold millenia of use, the depleted crystal was set aside. The "landing lights" that adorned the platform abruptly went out, plunging them instantly into stagnant darkness.
Some let out gasps of shock, freezing in place or sitting to avoid walking off the platform's edge. Alarmed, James whipped about, dazzled by the spotlight Cortana had activated. His night vision had done nothing to cut through the darkness of the now-inestimably large chamber around them. As his vision righted itself, he saw Kelly preparing to insert the new crystal into its mounting. Suddenly sensing something very wrong, he dashed between the blinded elites and grunt huddled on the lower outer platform and cut his way up the ramp. The new crystal went into place, and the entire chamber exploded in light.
"Kelly, no!" he shouted. The spartan stood frozen, her left hand locked to the side of the crystal as though she had been plugged into an electrical circuit. Nearly blinded by his still-engaged night vision, James ran up to his fellow spartan, intent on releasing her from whatever had taken hold. He was thrown back by a jolt of energy as he reached out to grab her, sliding off of the inner platform to land with a resounding crash on the outer. Jumping to his feet, James abruptly ripped off his helmet, at last seeing what it was that kept her in thrall.
"So beautiful," Kelly's mouth hung open as unseeing eyes stared at the blaze of light before her. Her forgotten assault rifle dropped from her grip and clattered to the floor, never to be touched again. Stars, countless multitudes of stars, formed and vanished silently in the air surrounding the platform, some infinitely distant, some so close as to seem blinding. Veins of noble gases, churning clouds of dust. Phenomena no man could hope to put into words. Lifeless balls of ice and gas. Verdant worlds, teeming with life. Caught in a wash of space and time, the spectators stared in awe as the universe unfolded in a kaleidoscope of light, oblivious to the furiously-scrolling panels of blue text that appeared and vanished around them on the platform. The entire galaxy as seen from the Grid washed through the chamber, flooding directly through the Spartan's mind before manifesting themselves in the room. Cortana drifted next to the spartan, a band of energy shooting from the front of the Monitor into the crystal itself as she attempted to hold back the torrent.
"Kelly, you have to concentrate," she said. "Spartan, focus!"
The air grew bright, and at last, the chaotic, churning wash of stars resolved into a single image. Finding their way to their feet, Haskins and the elites looked on in wonder at the most fantastically perfect hologram they had ever seen. Tterrab hung before them, three-dimensional, solid, and alive. Light from the sun reflected off of the stirring oceans. Manta-shaped Sangheili ships flitted about, like luminous insects. Orbital platforms of alien design stood watchful guard of the blue-green planet, smaller than matchsticks against the expanse of the globe. Deserts, mountains, and forests were rendered on its strip-like continents in meticulous detail. Blue triangle-shaped reticles were scattered geometrically across the face of the planet, with a larger one centered on Hyllas itself - the facility in which they stood. And on the night side glowed the red-hot wound that was the region glassed during the brutes' departure. 'Daulanee averted his eyes at the sight, catching a view of the comet-tail of the gas-giant Akhilia among the stars.
Tterrab shot away into space in a disorienting rush, the sky-filling world becoming a pale blue dot in the distance as the looming gas giant drew close. Tterrab's sun grew painfully bright as the platform's flight brought them near it, its occupants now bathed in intense blue light. Caught in the outer edges of Akhilia's boiling-hot atmosphere, destroyed husks of ships could be seen through the fleetmaster's squinting eyes, still orbiting the world before him – the dead from the disastrous effort to pursue the fleeing Prophets.
"We need to find them, Kelly," Cortana urged. "We need to find Truth's Forerunner ship. Where are they?"
With flashes of light, the setting changed time and again. The remaining Halo installations came and went, identical but for their surroundings. The observers squinted, looking for the telltale glimmer of light from the hulls of a thousands ships, but the space around each ring was empty. 'Daulanee cringed at the irony of what he was seeing. For all the millenia the Covenant had blindly wandered the galaxy in search of these rings, all along, the secret of their location had been buried in the sealed vaults directly beneath the hall of the High Council. More and more, he found it hard to believe that the prophets had never known.
The search continued. Haskins recognized Sigma Octanus, Eridanus, even the crushed remains of Coral. A debris field was shown that could only have been Reach, destroyed when Admiral Whitcomb's NOVA detonated, taking an unknown number of Covenant stragglers with it. With the last, pieces of debris appeared to pass through the observers like shrapnel, losing no detail as they drew close. As one glassed world after another filled the room around them, Haskins closed his eyes to keep the unwelcome images at bay. Every possible rally point had to be exhausted, one-by-one, but they were not all places that he wanted to go.
Kelly's scream was lost in the darkness as a final image took form.
The room had plunged into darkness. Squinting as his eyes adjusted, Haskins caught sight of a few patches in the distance where a smattering of stars shone through. Almost everywhere, clouds of black dust obscured their view. A handful of stars located within the dark nebula could be seen glowing in the distance, as bright as Jupiter on a clear night. The nearest of these was a pitiful orange dwarf, smaller than the sun, which cast an eerie glow on the gathered observers.
Haskins turned in confusion before he grew aware of a light down below. Through transparent portions of the platform they stood on, a tiny world could be seen hanging in the void, shrouded by a thick, gray atmosphere. Dark, ice-encrusted oceans and ragged continents dotted with what could have been city lights stood out on the world's obscured surface. Haskins turned to 'Daulanee to ask if he knew the world they were seeing, but looking back, he saw what had unnerved him.
Covenant ships, hundreds of them, were arrayed in high orbit above the planet. Looking not unlike the head of a spear, Truth's forerunner ship drifted among them. As they watched, Covenant ships rose up from the planet's surface, vanishing into slipspace rifts as they passed out of the hazy atmosphere. As soon as the last of them jumped away, the orbiting ships began to descend, shuffling into a ring-like formation that encompassed the little gray world.
Covering his mouth, the sergeant realized in horror what was about to happen.
One by one, white beams of light lanced out from the ships. The world offered no resistance as scythes of plasma began carving across her face like so many knives. The atmosphere shuddered and boiled as plasma streamed through it, peeling back her skin to reveal bloody, hemorrhaging wounds which stood in stark contrast to the darkness around them. The ships spread north and south, leaving molten devastation in their wake. In successive grids spreading from the path of destruction, city lights began to fail as massive clouds of steam spread from the boiling oceans. And all the while, the silver arrowhead hung in the sky above, impassively watching as the helpless world died below them.
Wracked by emotion and clenching his teeth, Haskins turned to 'Daulanee accusingly with tears in his eyes. He didn't know what to expect on the former fleetmaster's face. He hadn't expect the elites' sudden, uneasy deference to the grunt standing among them.
Zuzat's unblinking eyes were as black as marbles, his expression hidden beneath his mask, but 'Daulanee did not need to guess what was passing through the tiny being's mind. 'Daulanee knew that this little gray moon was all the Unggoy had ever had. The home they had sought to return to for so long was now dying before him, and there was nothing that any of them could do to stop it.
The former fleetmaster held a fist to his chest, his brow furrowed in thought. He looked at the stars. The floor. Anything but the burning world before him. He feared that to do otherwise would be to risk losing his mind completely. Truth's motive had been clear enough. The prophet was now finished with his Unggoy allies, as he was with the Sangheili. Truth had sent ships down to retrieve all of the Unggoy he would need to wage the final stage in his campaign, discreetly sending away the ships that bore them before setting the rest of his fleet to burn their world, lest the Sangheili also came to harvest reinforcements.
'Daulanee looked to the grunt before him, one whom his people looked to as a leader. One who had promised to bring his people home. The humanitarian crisis for the Unggoy survivors on Tterrab crossed his mind in a flash of panic that was not characteristic of the Fleetmaster. What would they eat? Where, now, could they possibly go?
The grunt turned his head to face him. 'Daulanee expected anger. Accusation. But he saw none.
"We will fight for you," Zuzat calmly announced. "All that is left of us."
The landing lights on the platform came on full. The chamber abruptly cleared, brightening to reveal that the room had once again contracted to its original size. Haskins slumped heavily against a pylon. James gently pulled a sobbing Kelly back to her feet, reaching for her helmet on the floor beside his. Zuzat bowed his head.
"Please tell me you recorded that," Halsey quietly said to Cortana.
"Never stopped," the red light replied.
"Did you get a count?"
"Yes. It looks like Envy lost his fight with Truth, despite carrying the Coral crystal. His surviving ships were incorporated into the larger fleet. Ultimately, it's bigger than when they first set out. But that's not the worst of it. I've calculated the trajectory of the Covenant vessels that were jumping away.
"They're going to Earth. Right now."
# # # # # # #
"No transports?" Lieutenant Joshua Murdock's eyes widened. "None?"
After decades of insurrectionist in-fighting, many of the first casualties of the Human-Covenant war belonged to factions which had moved off the grid entirely. Some of the first systems to fall had been only nominally under control of the UNSC. The total dead could never be known, but over the course of three decades, Earth and her inner colonies had been inundated with refugees from the outer systems. While skilled professionals from the colonies were quietly selected for return to Reach or Earth, Coral was ultimately designated the sacrificial lamb, with over a billion refugees being settled there by the UNSC, right up until the morning that Covenant ships first arrived.
Station Director Yuji Miyagi did not blink. "If the general populace knew, there would be panic in the streets, and evacuation of key personnel would be compromised."
Murdock seized him by the lapels. "There would be panic in the streets because they're going to die! My God, if they knew at least someone could begin to mount an evacuation!"
"Earth can't house them," Miyagi said coldly. "Earth can't feed them. Where do you think they're all supposed to go?"
# # # # # # #
They were rising. He had no memory of moving to an elevator, and looking around, he realized he was still leaning with his back against the same pylon as before. Through a slat in the platform under his feet, he saw the vast polyhedral chamber they had been in shrinking away through the shaft the platform now rose through. The ceiling had opened to allow their passage, and now they were returning to the surface.
"How long do we have before they reach Earth?" Halsey asked. The doctor was holding the black, fully-charged crystal she had brought with her. The original must have been returned while he was out.
"They're in the Coalsack nebula at the moment," Cortana replied. "That's six hundred light-years out. With a Menachite shard on board, which is a reasonable assumption, they could reach Earth within the next three days."
"How long?" 'Daulanee demanded.
"Two and a half rotations," Cortana snapped.
"Even the Inquisitor cannot reach Earth fast enough!" 'Daulanee shouted.
"No," Halsey said. "But James destroyed two of our Network crystals before you boarded my ship. The dilation effects of jumping through the slipspace bubble they would have created when they were destroyed should buy us some time."
"I can talk physics later. We're already on borrowed time. We can make it, but we have to leave. Now."
The doctor turned towards Haskins. "You're awake," she observed. "Good."
"We're going." Haskins had sunk into something of a stupor after witnessing the glassing. He seemed to be coming out of it, but the staff sergeant still spoke with a detached, almost robotic voice.
"Yes," Halsey said. Satisfied, she turned away from the ONI operative. "Councilor, now would be a good time to call in."
# # # # # # #
Hundreds of feet below the ascending platform, the now-vacant map room began to power down. The angular panels of the polyhedral chamber returned to a flat, gunmetal gray as the panels of the ceiling converged to close up behind the departed platform. In the long corridors branching off from the room, lights and holographic consoles shut themselves down, storing the energy in their dwindling reserves until the next visitor arrived, possibly in a thousand years. Possibly never.
In a remote corner of the facility, far from the map room, one circuit flickered to life. Holographic consoles rebooted, networking with other components scattered across the installation. Three sentinels entered the room via a duct, coming to a hover in anticipation as a blaze of light appeared in the center of their formation. As the light dissipated, a fourth figure appeared.
Held aboard the Pious Inquisitor for days, he had been kept in aggravating isolation. Even his control of the ship's systems was thwarted by the efforts of his tainted counterpart. Largely unsure of what to do with him, his Sangheili captors had kept him under careful guard, but being within range of this facility's teleportation grid, there was absolutely nothing his guards could have done to prevent his escape. As he took inventory of the facility's on-site resources, a sense of giddy relief took hold. Both his Sangheili captors and his tainted counterpart now seemed determined to thwart established containment protocol. Such could no longer be allowed.
"Yes," 343 Guilty Spark said cheerfully. "This will do nicely."