James Ackerson was...confused.
That, mused the colonel bitterly, had become something of a norm nowadays, going hand in hand with what seemed to be the last days of the human race. It was confusing that the Covenant had attacked Earth with but a fraction of the number of ships that had attacked Reach. It was confusing that an assault carrier had decided to head down to New Mombasa, only to bug out just before more Covenant ships arrived. It was confusing that the aliens seemingly wanted Earth intact rather than glassing it and tearing the political and cultural heart out of their enemy. And in light of this fanaticism, it was confusing that the aliens, now led by Brutes as far as he could tell, had the cranial capacity to recognise that Mars had the potential to be a thorn in their side.
How kind of them.
Of course, he had to admit, that was almost a blessing in disguise. Earth had always been given absolute priority since the start of the war and as vital as Mars was, it was still given secondary priority. So even if the red world fell and lived up to its namesake, even if the UNSC lost its vital shipyards and armouries, such actions would at least buy Earth some time to...well, find a miracle. So as dark and dusky as Mare Erythraeum was, it was here that the first shots would be fired between the Covenant and UNSC Armies. Shots that, as the colonel stared at the latest source of his confusion, might come far sooner than expected.
"Um, sir?" came a voice from behind. "We have a Phantom approaching and-..."
"I'm aware of that major, thank you for keeping me informed," snapped Ackerson, not taking his eyes off the ship apparently en route to his command post.
"Er, yes sir. I just wondered what you wanted to do about it."
Under normal circumstances, Ackerson would have said something along the lines of "blow it out of the sky." However, having only just returned to the position of a field officer, his situation could hardly be called normal. Normal didn't count Phantom dropships that were slightly different from their usual design, having a squat, almost human appearance instead of the more organic Covenant look. Normal didn't cover such dropships flying by a human army without any care in the world. And normal certainly didn't cover what had become the latest part of the mystery.
"Fo," said Ackerson suddenly, turning to the tech specialist that he'd summoned to help clarify the conundrum. "Has there been any change in registry?"
"No sir," replied the tech. "IFF codes are unrecognised, but they at least fit within broad parameters. "It's also got a full ID and everything. Apparently it belongs to something called the UAC."
Ackerson had no idea what the UAC was and didn't care either. All he cared about right now was that a Phantom dropship that looked nothing like a Phantom dropship was passing out of range and if he was going to act, it would have to be now.
"Barnes..." the CO said eventually, still facing the tech. "I'm going to assume that we've already tried communicating with them."
"Correct sir. No response."
"What about its intended destination, if it even has one?"
"It wasn't given sir, but I managed to access it. Here, I'll show you."
While nowhere near as efficient as an AI, Barnes did his job well regardless. Pulling out a portable holotank, an image of Mars promptly appeared, just as red there as it was on the ground here. Red that was overlain with shades of green and purple to demonstrate the locations of UNSC and Covenant forces respectively. However, even after five centuries of colonization, the uninhabited areas still remained. And seeing the dropship's destination displayed in the north-western hemisphere, that was where it was headed.
"What the hell?" Major House mused. "There's nothing there. Why would they be-..."
"Nothing there that we know of," Ackerson interrupted. "And as soon as we get some Falcons in the air to investigate the site once they land, we'll find out whether that's the case."
"What? But what if it's a trap? The Covenant could-..."
"The Covenant doesn't need to make traps major," snapped the colonel, wanting to end the conversation here and now. "They outnumber us, they outgun us and even if they wanted to set a trap, they'd make it far more obvious than just sending a single dropship over us."
The major opened his mouth to speak...then closed it. Exactly whether that was a sign of discipline or a weak spine was up to debate, but Ackerson didn't care either way. All he cared about was the horde of apes about to descend on his force and that in the midst of all this, he was obliged to check out some...ghost ship, headed to the middle of nowhere.
Well, no matter. It's not as if anything worse than the Covenant could be waiting for us.
Taking one last look at the hologram and the coordinates being displayed, Ackerson cleared his head. By the end of the day, there was a good chance he'd lose it. Yet still, just in case, he made a mental note of the location displayed...
Probably obvious, but this was based on how both the Covenant and UAC use Phantom dropships. Couple in a certain red planet that goes to hell in both universes, and somehow this popped up.