This is very much an AU of canon Halo, with the UNSC being significantly more technologically adept. Nothing crazy, mind, but Halo is set 500 years in the future, yet their technology is, in some cases, worse than modern equivalents. I hope to rectify that with this story. Enjoy, and please leave me some feedback.

March 3rd, 2525
Marathon-class Cruiser Defiant Warrior
13.2 light-years beyond the Eastern Fringe

When people thought of space, they thought of the darkness, of the stars, the cold and the unliveable environment the vacuum created. What they didn't think of was the loneliness a man could feel, millions of miles from nowhere with nothing but blank grey walls and distant pinpricks of light to look at.

Despite the fact that the Marathon-Class Cruiser Defiant Warrior was fully manned, Engineer David Carter couldn't help but feel a little lonely. He had been transferred over from the now-decommissioned Caballero-Class Destroyer Darkest Before Dawn to the Warrior three months ago, one week before this deep-space patrol along the Eastern Fringe had started.

A posting aboard any Marathon Cruiser was highly sought after, and Carter had been more than a little prideful that he had been chosen among just a few candidates over nearly ten thousand other people. The Warrior, though, was a legend even among the monsters of space that the other ships of her class were.

Commissioned four years ago as one of the first Marathons ever built, the Warrior was the sole survivor of two of the fiercest conflicts between the United Nations Defence Force and the by-comparison puny Insurrectionist Navy. Both times the Warrior had been caught off-guard and brutally beaten by numerically superior forces far from any real help.

Those two battles alone had cost the UNSCDF thirty-two ships, including one other Marathon Cruiser and seven destroyers. The Warrior had been assumed lost with all hands in the aftermath of both conflicts, but had turned up at Reach two weeks after the first conflict with more than three-quarters of its crew intact.

The second time it had been nearly four months before the Warrior was seen again, this time with barely 100 crew members still alive, its sub-light drives gutted and most of its armour useless, irradiated metal.

And now here she was, the most respected warship in the Navy, travelling along at a modest thirteen-thousand kilometres per minute, seventeen light years from the nearest colony, looking for Lord-knows-what in a sector of space known for its abundance of uninhabitable worlds.

And David Carter was the loneliest man aboard, because he had no time for friends. As an Engineer, he was always needed, the only time he got off work he spent sleeping or eating. He had acquaintances, other Engineers mostly, but had no time to form any real relationships with anyone.

"Hey, Carter!," a familiar voice rang through the corridors, and Carter looked up from his PDA, his attention zeroing in on an oversized man with a goofy grin on his face. Private Andrew Smart was the one person who made a real effort to get to know Carter, and although he wouldn't go so far as to call the man a friend, Carter had to admit that Smart was probably the closest thing he had to one aboard the Warrior.

"Hey," Carter said quietly, turning back to his PDA and frowning at his e-mails. Junk mail, all of it.

"What are you up to, bro?," Smart said, skidding to a stop beside the much smaller man. Smart was tall, muscle-bound and overly friendly with everyone, the complete opposite of Carter, who was short, skinny and shy.

"Just checking my e-mails before I head down to Bravo-C Armoury to run some diagnostics on the holo-displays there," Carter replied, still not looking up from his PDA.

"Sweet," Smart said, in a voice that clearly said it was anything but. "Guess what?"

"What?," Carter said, sighing a little to himself.

"I know why we're here," Smart said, grinning brightly and showing off his pearly-whites.

Intrigued now, Carter looked up. "What do you mean?"

"The patrol, bro. The whole reason we've been out here floating around for the past three months," Smart said enthusiastically. There was silence for a long time after that statement, and Carter began getting frustrated.

"Well?"

"Well, what?," Smart replied, looking confused.

"Are you going to tell me why we're here, or not?," Carter ground out, shaking his head in annoyance.

"Oh, yeah. That," Smart grinned again. "We're here 'cos of ONI, man. I heard Tony in Logistics saying there were some weird results from the last group of probes sent out here. And Jen, from the Flight Deck, said there was a Spook on the bridge last time she was up there."

Carter sighed again, finally exiting his e-mails and bringing up a map of the level they were on. The problem with working aboard a cruiser was they were just so damn big, it was easy to get lost without a map.

"Why would a Spook commission a capital ship for any mission?," he replied. "A Stealth Frigate is more likely, maybe even a destroyer, but a cruiser? Come on, man."

"I'm just telling you what I heard," Smart answered. "Who knows, maybe there are nasty aliens out here, and the big, bad Spook didn't feel safe in anything else!"

As Smart laughed at his lame joke, and Carter smiled politely, he couldn't help but think that maybe there was some truth in what the other man said. No one knew anything about this mission, and that just reeked of ONI.

OOOOO

Captain Thaddeus Davian was a man known for his short temper and brilliant tactics. Standing at five-feet-eleven inches and with the build of a man who worked out constantly, Davian's dark skin reflected the harsh lighting of the Warrior's bridge dully, and his obsidian eyes keenly observed his bridge crew as they went about their business.

Although he would never admit it to anyone, not even his darling wife Carmel back home, he was more than slightly anxious in the presence of Michael Dunston, the man who stood impassively to the right and slightly behind the captains chair.

Dunston was five-foot-five, thin and wiry, and in excellent physical condition, as was required by all men and women in positions similar to his. He had been a member of the Office Of Naval Intelligence's Section One for three years before being transferred to the near-mythical Section Three two and a half years ago.

People, both enlisted personnel and civilians alike, were encouraged to believe that Section Three did not exist, and more often than not those outside of the organisation that knew for certain of its existence disappeared.

Davian had always had his suspicions, but they had been confirmed by Dunston himself when the man had come out and told him point-blank to his face in a private meeting that Section Three existed, and that it was very, very interested in a certain sector of space.

Although he had asked the hawk-nosed man several times, Davian still did not know what exactly they were out here looking for or even why the Warrior had been commissioned to look for it.

"Captain," Ensign Makeshi at Sensors and Communications called for Davian's attention. "We're receiving a transmission from our spy-sats in the Minotaur system."

"Which one is that again, ensign?," Dunston demanded, moving swiftly and gracefully towards the young woman's console.

"Uh, the one we just left, sir," Makeshi answered, her voice quavering only slightly. Although no-one other than Davian and Dunston knew exactly who Dunston was, everyone else aboard the ship that had met him had their own theories, most of which weren't far off the mark.

"What's the content of the transmission?," Davian asked.

"Unusual energy signatures flared suddenly several light-minutes out from the inner-most sat. Since then, low-level emissions have been tracked moving slowly through the system," Makeshi said.

"Captain," Dunston said, turning to face the still-seated man.

"Spin up the FTL drive, set course for the Minotaur system. Unlock safeties for the MAC and our missile pods, prep point defences, rail guns and standby shields," Davian ordered gruffly, then settled back in his chair to watch in satisfaction as his crew did their jobs with fine-tuned efficiency.

The shields to which the captain had referred was in fact and electro-magnetic field generator, which was used to defend against missile strikes by frying the internal components of said missiles. It also made an excellent deterrent for fighters, bombers and even had a somewhat limited effect on rail gun rounds and an extremely limited effect on MAC rounds.

"I hope you're not planning to do anything rash, Captain," Dunston said, returning to his spot behind the other man.

"Just being cautious. This ship and its crew are my responsibility, regardless of what you have to say on the subject," Davian replied coolly.

"Oh, of course, Captain. Do carry on," Dunston said with a sly grin. It was at that point that Thaddeus Davian decided he really didn't like Michael Dunston.

OOOOO

Although the transition to faster-than-light speeds was by no means sudden, thanks to the alert klaxons going off all around the ship, Carter still found himself unprepared for it and lost his footing as the great cruiser jumped into a Slipspace tunnel. Several unsecured items around the armoury joined him on the floor before the shuddering ceased and he was able to pick himself up.

Grumbling to himself, Carter began cleaning up the mess and set himself back to work on the malfunctioning holo-emitter. A few short minutes later, the klaxons started going off again, and Carter immediately wrapped his arms around the base of the emitter as the ship transition from Slipspace to real-space.

Micro-jumps were rarely performed unless in an emergency situation, so Carter wasn't surprised to hear the FTL Klaxon replaced with the General Quarters Klaxon moments after the shaking stopped.

Carter leapt to his feet, gathered his tools as quickly as he could, then hurried his way through the labyrinthine corridors of the vast ship on his way to the Engineering Bay to report to his station. All around him, the corridors filled up with marines, engineers, technicians and crewmen rushing to their stations.

"Yo Carter!," a hauntingly familiar voice cried out, and Carter turned to see the hulking form of Smart rushing out of the lavatory, doing up his belt buckle as he ran. "The hell's goin' on man?"

"I don't know. But we made a micro-jump, so I guess maybe we're answering a distress call or something," Carter answered breathlessly.

"Distress call? That the best you can come up with?," Smart said sceptically. "Who the hell would be out here to send a distress call?"

"Who knows? Maybe those aliens you were talking about earlier," Carter replied, before hooking a sharp left and leaving his almost-friend behind.

OOOOO

"Have you got anything yet, ensign?," Davian queried, shifting in his command chair to get a better view of ensign Makeshi's console.

"Yes, sir," the young woman answered. "It looks like orbital activity around the system's third primary."

Davian nodded thoughtfully, then turned to Dunston.

"We were last in this system less than eighteen hours ago, and there was nothing here then. There are no inhabitable planets here. Is there anything I or my crew should know?," he said in a low voice to the ONI operative. Dunston looked around the bridge, making sure no one else would hear what he had to say, then leaned in close to the captain and spoke in a low voice.

"We've been sending probes into this area of space since the late twenty-second century, as you know," Dunston began. "Most of them are able to send images and telemetry data back to us. We've never found inhabitable planets out here before, or at least no planets that a human could inhabit."

"What are you saying?," Davian whispered back, looking around conspicuously at his crew.

"The last six probes sent out here failed to return any telemetry or imagery back. Considering the highest loss rate in the past was one per every seventeen, sabotage seems to be the most likely event," Dunston replied. "So ONI commissioned a pair of Prowlers to begin a patrol out here five months ago."

"Why the hell are we here if you've already sent a patrol out? And who would be out here to sabotage the probes?"

"Please, captain, I'm getting to that," Dunston said, feeling a little frustrated. "Those Prowlers were due back six weeks after leaving. We've had no communication with them since a fortnight after they first left. It is ONI's belief, and my own as well, that those ships were most likely destroyed."

He paused a moment to glare at one of the helmsmen, who was approaching the captain's chair. The helmsman turned around and returned to his station without skipping a beat.

"Which means there is either a very serious raider problem out here that we somehow don't know about, which seems unlikely, or," Dunston shifted closer to the captain, lowering his voice even further. "Or there may be an unknown, possibly hostile civilisation inhabiting this sector."

"Aliens?," Davian said sceptically. "That seems even more unlikely."

"Perhaps," Dunston said, standing up straighter. "But this galaxy contains over four hundred billion stars. We have only charted four hundred and ninety of them so far. That is a truly miniscule number in the grand scheme of things."

Davian frowned, but nodded his head slightly to show that he understood.

"Helm, what is our ETA to the third primary?," he asked.

"We'll be in LIDAR range in thirty-eight minutes, sir," the helmsman replied quickly.

"Excellent. WEPCOM, status?"

"All missile racks are loaded with magazines, sir. All rail guns are ready to fire on demand, and the capacitors for the main gun are fully charged, with four rounds waiting to be loaded. Auto-cannons are online and ready to fire, set to auto-track, sir," the Weapons Officer replied, moving his fingers rapidly over his keyboard and checking the status of the Warrior's weapon systems even as he rattled off his report.

"Sensors, go active," Davian ordered. Going active meant that the ships full sensor capabilities would be used, constantly probing the space all around it for any signs of threat with LIDAR and radar.

"DEFCOM, status."

"Our EMFG is online and ready to be activated. Our pulse-lasers are ready to fire and set to auto-track, as are the CIWS auto-cannons and the Flak cannon batteries. Counter-missiles are in their tubes and ready to fire," the lieutenant at the Defence Command station answered. "And our ECM and ECCM systems are prepared to go active on your order, sir."

"Understood," Davian said. "Ensign Makeshi, are we getting anything more from the spy-sats?"

"Receiving telemetry now, sir," Makeshi replied, licking her lips nervously. "During our micro-jump, sat-19 detected two slip-space ruptures within just a few light-seconds of where the energy flares first appeared. Unknown ship profiles, sir."

"Lieutenant Callahan, prepare our First Contact Protocol Package," Davian ordered, sharing a look with Dunston.

"Any idea what to expect?," Davian said to the smaller man in a low voice.

Dunston shook his head. "None at all."

Davian scowled, turning to look out the view port. They were going in blind.

OOOOO

The third rock from the Minotaur sun was decidedly unimpressive. A ball of rock and frozen hydrocarbons, it was uninhabitable to all known life forms and had no large deposits of useful minerals, meaning that it was simply tagged with an alpha-numerical code and added to the navigational database of the Warrior as a local point of reference.

Unfortunately, so far as anyone could tell, worlds like this were the norm in this sector of space, and for centuries no manned expeditions were mounted out here by the UNSC or the former Colonial Government of Earth.

Harsh sunlight glinted off the surface of the barren world as the Warrior drew near, he mighty sensors sweeping every cubic inch of space all around it, detecting pieces of debris and high levels of localised radiation.

"Looks like someone was throwing nukes around out here, sir," Makeshi said. "There's a lot of debris here as well, mostly unknown materials but some traces of titanium. The sats didn't detect any more slip-space ruptures, so whoever was here is either hiding or we're looking at them."

"Understood, ensign," Davian replied. "Helm, bring us around the planet and let's see if anyone is hiding on the far side."

"Aye, sir."

"Take care, Captain, I don't like the idea of getting caught up in an alien war," Dunston said, loud enough for most of the bridge crew to hear. Davian frowned at the spook.

"I don't either, and I also don't appreciate you voicing your concerns to my crew. This job is stressful enough as it is."

"I apologise, Captain," Dunston said in such a way that told the captain that he was not in any way sincere.

"Sir!," Ensign Makeshi cried out in alarm. "Incoming!"

"Evasive manoeuvres, point defence engage at will!," Davian ordered quickly, and the cruiser slewed sharply to port. The tactical display lit up, registering two inbound missiles tracking the cruiser. Auto-cannons, PD lasers and flak cannons were engaging the inbound projectiles to no apparent effect.

The missiles impacted the surrounding EM field and passed straight through, seemingly unhindered by the defensive barrier.
"All hands brace for impact," Davian said into his headset, sending the warning ship-wide. Seconds later, the Warrior seemed to groan as it shuddered under the impacts. The temperature on the bridge jumped almost ten degrees suddenly, before the internal sensors picked it up and the air conditioning pumped ice-cold air throughout the ship.

"Report," Davian snarled. "What the hell was that!"

"Some kind of directed energy weapon, sir," Makeshi said, consulting her sensors array. "Two contacts to starboard, bearing 319 mark 027, profiles match the unknowns our spy-sats picked up emerging from slip-space."

The Warrior shook again briefly as it was struck by more weapons fire.

"They're firing pulse lasers at us, sir," Makeshi said. "Much more powerful than ours."

"Weapons, return fire with starboard rail-guns," Davian ordered. "Helm, bring us into line for a MAC strike."

"Shouldn't we try to contact them, Captain?," Dunston queried.

"If they wanted to talk to us, they would have," Davian answered.

OOOOO

Outside, the two bulbous ships, each about the size of a destroyer, accelerated toward the much greater bulk of the Defiant Warrior, blood red flashes lighting up their hulls as pulse laser pounded the thickly armoured hide of the cruiser.

The closer of the two ships was suddenly enveloped in a glowing silver bubble as the Warriors starboard rail-gun batteries opened fire, peppering the smaller ship with foot long slivers of titanium.

The glowing bubble rippled violently as the kinetic energy of the slivers was imparted against it. The destroyer slowed it's advance, weathering the storm of projectiles as an ominous blue glob of plasma began developing on its nose, contained within a magnetic field.

It's sister kept moving at the same pace, an identical plasma discharge growing in front of it. Distant puffs of gas erupted from the massive cruiser, and for a moment the ships crew thought they had finally breached the annoyingly resilient hull.

Chemical trails streaked toward the unengaged destroyer, preceded by anti-ship missiles launched from the Warriors rapidly emptying starboard missile racks. Laser pulses stabbed out from the advancing destroyer, switching priorities from the ship to the weapons it had spawned.

A dozen warheads were shot down before the first few began impacting, rippling the destroyers shield and setting it aglow with sickly yellow light which reflected off of the ships shining purple hull.

The plasma discharged from the first ship even as this happened, moving sluggishly towards the human cruiser. Flak cannons engaged the plasma ball, followed by counter missiles set for proximity detonation.

Again, these defences had no appreciable effect , but as the plasma got closer to the Warrior, it passed through the EM field and the magnetic containment field holding the ball of plasma together lost some of its integrity, reducing the effectiveness of the plasma torpedo.

The commander of the destroyer was not well pleased by this; had it not been for the field negating a percentage of the magnetic field around the plasma, the human cruiser would probably have been crippled by the first combined plasma salvo.

As the second destroyer unleashed its own torpedo, the nose of the Warrior aligned with the near-stationary destroyer being hammered by rail-gun rounds, and a great flash erupted from the cruiser.

A multi-ton tungsten/titanium shell sped a across the distance between the cruiser and the destroyer in record time, popping the defensive shield of the ship with ease and expending the incredible kinetic force against the relatively thin hull of the destroyer.

The effects were catastrophic for the smaller ship, it's nose crumpled inwards just before something vital inside detonated, turning the destroyer into an expanding field of gas and debris.

The cruisers rail-guns immediately re-tasked themselves to engage the remaining ship, missiles and titanium slivers hammering the destroyers shield as its plasma torpedo impacted the side of the cruiser.

Another pulse laser salvo etched into the hull of the Warrior, then the destroyer opened a slip-space rupture and disappeared inside it, leaving the inbound missile salvo and rail-gun rounds to fly off harmlessly into the void.

The Defiant Warrior, victorious, moved into a holding orbit above the barren world the fight had taken place over.

OOOOO

"Damage report," Davian said, watching the destroyed hostile ships debris field slowly expanding.

"Moderate damage," Major Saldana from Damage Control replied. "We lost two rail-guns, three auto-cannons and a counter missile battery. Hull breaches on decks nineteen, twenty and twenty six, we're sealing off the affected areas now. We also lost one of the secondary power feeds to the MAC capacitor."

"Understood, do what you can," Davian said. "Med-bay, what's the status of dead and wounded?"

Doctor Reed, the Warrior's Chief Medical Officer, answered. "We have wounded flooding in from all over the ship, mostly first and second degree burns. So far my teams have found seven confirmed deaths, but we're getting reports from all over of more severely wounded crew, as well as dozens of unconfirmed KIA reports."

Davian nodded sombrely to himself. "Understood, I'll let you get back to work, it sounds like you're busy down there."

"Thank you, sir," Doctor Reed replied, then signed off from the intra-ship comm. System.

"Well, that was…bracing," Dunston said, staring at what was left of the hostile ship.

"Indeed," Davian answered. "It looks like you got your proof of an alien civilisation out here after all."

OOOOO

"Gods, did you see that?"

"Yeah, but I don't believe it. We should get the hell out of here."

Some distance from the damaged cruiser and the debris field of the destroyer, a small ship that had been under strict emissions control powered up quickly and fed it's jump drive, leaving the area swiftly, but not altogether unnoticed.