Halo is a copyrighted franchise of Microsoft Corporation and 343 Industries and "Alien" is a copyrighted franchise of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. No claim of ownership over any characters, places, events or items that are not original is asserted. Many thanks to my fellow members of Halo Fanon for being just generally awesome, especially Matt-256 for lending me the character of Helen Calypso and Another Poetic Spartan for Puppet Master. And, as they say, read and review!


Light danced across the grubby walls of the shadowed service corridor. PFC Jansen had tried accessing the light controls, but evidently someone had wrecked it. Corporal Vasquez had captured an image of it and sent it back to Wallace, to let him know that at least some of the enemy weren't totally crap at sabotage.

The corridor wasn't very large – it wasn't built for comfort, it was built to be unobtrusive and out-of-the-way. She was the only one who didn't have to duck, one of the many advantages being a short woman had, but she still had to take care of her footing, avoiding the chunks of polycrete that had fallen off the crumbling tunnel walls and ceiling. Jansen wasn't exactly short, and he had to hunch over. Private Wells kept knocking his helmet against the overhead lattice of pipes, so she'd posted him to guard the entrance. Private Heller was also of the female persuasion, but she was also taller than Vasquez, and occasionally swore as a knob or handgrip loomed out of the gloom.

"Keep it up, Heller. Maybe the enemy'll cut you down to size."

"Not if I cut them down first," Heller muttered.

The word had gone out through the planetside Helljumpers – whoever they were fighting, they weren't Insurrectionists. Or if they were, they weren't very good ones. But that was beside the point – their orders were to secure the facility and take any prisoners they could. If they resisted capture, they were authorised to use lethal means to…convince them that resistance was futile. On the other hand, they hadn't actually encountered much resistance – sure, there had been the compound fence and the guards, but compared to a Hunter barrelling towards you, roaring in anger and brandishing a solid plate of whatever metal the Covenant had used to armour them, the guards and their dogs had been a cakewalk. Not a pleasant cakewalk, but a cakewalk nevertheless

Vasquez didn't care who they were. They had orders, and they'd carry them out.

She grimaced as she stepped in something. Clearly maintenance wasn't the only function these service corridors had. She didn't know how it smelt, and she didn't want to know – the helmet's filters were doing a fine job of scrubbing the air, thank god.

And because there was…stuff on the ground, she could hear the footsteps.

Well, footsteps weren't quite right. It sounded as if someone was thrashing about in the deep end of a pool. She gestured her Fireteam to halt, raising her own weapon, and was rewarded with the sight of a man tearing around the corner of the corridor, skidding to a stop as he caught sight of four black armour-clad silver-visored Helljumpers, a pistol gripped in his hands.

"Drop the weapon!" she barked. "Drop it now!"

The man looked from one trooper to another, a confused look replacing the previous look of horror, and the pistol dropped to the ground with a splash at it landed in a murky green puddle.

"On your knees," she added. "Jansen, secure the prisoner."

The Fireteam moved forward, weapons still trained on the man lying in a murky green puddle. Jansen secured the pistol, an M6 series, and drew a pair of bindings for the man's hands. Vasquez took up position at the mouth of the tunnel the man had come tearing out from, glaring into the murk with her VISR-assisted vision. Even visual enhancement was having trouble penetrating the murk - there were some areas where the light simply didn't reach, where there was nothing at all to reflect. She switched to thermals, but the heat from the ventilation made it hard to tell even where the man had come.

There was a clatter behind her or polycrete falling into the liquid that covered the floor, another part of the tunnel crumbling. She switched back to infrared as she turned, to make sure it hadn't fallen on any of her Fireteam.

Something spattered across her helmet, obscuring her vision. Disgusted, she lifted a gloved hand to wipe it off.

Then the scream started, and the ground rose up to meet her.

Her first thought was that the man had been wounded, but the noise was too high-pitched to be human. And instinctually, she recognised that it wasn't a scream of pain or fear – it was a cry of rage. She tried to get up, hands pushing against the floor, but a weight on her back held her down. Without the helmet she might have drowned in the sewage, and she could feel claws clicking on titanium plating as whatever was on top of her turned. She threw it off her with an almighty heave, sending it rolling to its feet as the rest of the Fireteam opened fire. Vasquez reached for her rifle, flicking the liquid off, but by the time she'd got to her knees and raised her weapon the creature had started climbing, gripping the polycrete walls – and it was fast, too fast to see, too dark to make out clearly.

A tail lashed out, and Vasquez threw herself back down beneath it. Jansen wasn't so lucky, and was knocked back, screaming, his armour torn by a sharp blade, Wells desperately trying to drag him to safety. Heller opened fire, the muzzle flash lighting up the gloom, and for a moment, as bullets tore into the wall around it, Vasquez could make out a pitch-black shape - and then it lashed out again, sending Heller sprawling with a glancing blow.

"Move!" she yelled at the prisoner, who seemed rooted to the spot, staring up in horror at the creature. "Run! Now!"

The spell was broken as Vasquez fired her own rifle, the…thing shrieking as bullets pinged off of it as the man ran for the apparent safety of Wells and the wounded Jansen. There was a spray of green smoking fluid, splashing across the wall, and it leapt again, claws and teeth, towards Vasquez-

There was a booming gunshot, and the creature bounced off the wall, a wound in its side where Wells had hit it with a shotgun shell. Vasquez rose, rifle aimed at it, as it struggled to its knees – wobbled, fell, writhed for a few seconds, and then grew still.

"Sound off!" she yelled.

"Jansen's hurt bad, Corporal," said Wells, detaching a canister of biofoam from his battle dress uniform, shoving the nozzle into the wound, and injecting the coagulant/anaesthetic foam. "I'm fine."

"Nothing bad," said Heller, using her gun as a prop to get up from the slick ground. "Just bruises."

"And the prisoner?"

Nothing from him. Wells gave the man, crouched behind the wounded Jansen, a cursory look over, a disgusted look apparent from behind his visor. Blood – she assumed it was blood – oozed out of the alien corpse, smoking and bubbling as it began to eat through the floor. "No injuries. He's fine, except maybe a change of pants."

There was another inhuman shriek in the darkness, and the Marines snapped around, weapons up in a flash.

"Right," she said, pulling a grenade from a pouch. "Marines, we are leaving!"

Heller and Wells backed out, dragging the wounded but still armed Jansen and the traumatised prisoner with them. Vasquez thought she saw movement in the dark, and fired off a three-round-burst, rewarded with a yelp of pain. She pulled the pin, tossed the grenade, and leapt out of the way – she was doubly grateful for her helmet as the wave of pressure caught her and threw her further, covered in dust and debris from the blast. Her eardrums would be a bleeding pulp without the audio filters. There was a cry from one of her team mates, and she felt Heller grab her arm, dragging her out of the service duct and into the dim but welcome light of the interior corridors.

She booted her COM software. "Sarge, Vasquez. We have hostiles in the base – not human, unknown. Not Covenant…well, probably not Covenant. Do you copy? Over."


"Damn. Wells, get Wallace on the COMs, mine are busted." She took her helmet off, examining the small receiver, and whacked it against a wall for good measure – nothing like good old fashioned violence to bludgeon sensitive technology into its place.

Wells cupped a hand to his own receiver, frowning. "Nothing Sarge. Mine are down too."

"Has anyone got clear COMs?" she asked, and was rewarded with negatives from Heller and Jansen. She didn't bother asking the prisoner – still staring at the pile of rubble that had once been the service corridor.

"Fantastic," she grunted. "And I thought today was going to be dull."

Contrary to popular belief, and the myth that ONI had fabricated around them, Spartans were rarely laconic. Andrew hated the propaganda holovids where the heroes mouthed witty, punny, or sarcastic one-liners before they brought down the bad guys. Such behaviour was unprofessional, unethical, and simply gave the enemy a few precious seconds of time, during which anything could happen. There was also always the niggling feeling that it was tempting fate.

But, if he'd had to choose one, he would have said, "All too easy."

Frankly, the biggest surprise about this op was the lack of resistance. There had been the perimeter guards, but really, Helljumpers faced worse on a weekly basis. And even after Indigo had touched down, the first supposed "Innies" had stuck their hands up as far as they could upon seeing the first ODST barrel through the door.

There was also the ridiculous notion that these were Insurrectionists. That was what they'd all been told to expect in the mission briefing, and he'd immediately discounted that when he'd assessed the building. Innies didn't use stealth metamaterial and prototype energy shielding – for one thing, they didn't have the scientific know-how, unless they'd infiltrated deeper than even ONI suspected; for another, it would have been a waste of effort and funds that could go towards making bombs and rockets to blow up UNSC servicemen. Innies didn't play by the rules that governed this building.

And then there was the building itself – while it had made an adequate base, it was obviously not designed to be. They'd passed an atrium with a water feature on the way it – a water feature! Whoever inhabited this facility was used to creature comforts, and aimed to impress – which meant regular visits from the outside from superiors who were hard to please.

Which raised the question – just what did they hope to please them with?

That was a question Andrew intended to answer. And as he let another loop of rope out and dropped half a meter, he briefly wondered how long it would take, and how.

The explosion earlier had been from the elevator shaft. The defenders – Andrew refused to think of them as Innies – had set small charges and severed the cables, sending the elevator compartments crashing down. Perhaps they'd thought it would inconvenience them? Certainly the idea that a Spartan-II in half a tonne of MJOLNIR powered armour could simply rappel down the shaft sounded absurd. It was also exactly what Andrew was doing now, using a carbon fibre chord taken from one of the Warthogs – strong enough to hold hid weight, probably strong enough to hold the weight of the whole of Indigo team if it had to, but he didn't want to push their luck. Andrew was the first one to descend into the shaft, infrared vision enhancement lighting it up in an eerie green hue.

He'd expected proximity mines or other traps, which would have stood out on his display like a sore thumb anyway. Instead, all he saw was burned metal, and occasionally a highlighted ding where the explosive force had warped the metal. As he descended, the walls gained a few more dents as his bots crashed into them.

Sloppy work. If Sergeant Wallace had been defending the place, he doubted he'd have such an easy time of it.

He didn't need to be a Spartan to come to his conclusions, and he doubted the ODSTs hadn't reached them too. Some of them were single-minded, especially when it came to their dislike of Andrew and his kind, but none of them were stupid – the IQ test weeded out the stupid ones, and combat took the ones that slipped through. Wallace especially wasn't stupid – he was hardened, tough-as-nails, and methodical, and he worked things out quickly. Right now, the Helljumpers were all probably wondering who the hell their prisoners really were – except that Andrew had ordered them to leave the interrogation either until ONI could send someone from the Prowler, or until they finished their mission, whichever came first.

They hadn't been happy when he'd pulled rank on Wallace. Neither was he. He also didn't like lying to them. But orders were orders, and all he could do was work with what he had available to him.

He stopped when he'd reached the first floor down, bracing himself against the wall. He pulled a fist back, and punched through the metal. It wasn't difficult, and his fist went through the solid steel as if it were plywood. He withdrew the hand, and pushed his fingers in, pulling the doors apart, metal grinding against metal as the doors slid open.

If that didn't alert the guards, he didn't know what would.

He kicked off, swinging himself back on the rope. On the downswing, he raised his legs, and unclipped the harness, landing with a dull clang on the grating. He reached back into the shaft as he unholstered his rifle, tugging once on the rope, the signal for the next person to descend.

He took the opportunity to assess the environment – small lobby, door locked, no thermal signatures, except for a small camera, swinging on its axis – nobody had been present for hours. It was facing away from him – he fired a single shot, and was rewarded with a shower of sparks.

He looked down.

The ground was covered in shell casings. A regular soldier or Marine might have slipped on the spent casings, but his boots had simply crushed them. The ground was quite literally carpeted in casings. He display tagged two dozen, trying to reconstruct trajectory before it gave up, the task far too complicated – no mean feat. It also tagged dozens of bullet holes on the walls facing away from the elevator doors, and especially concentrated on the door, metal gouged by metal

He felt a whisper of sound beside him, and turned to see Laura gracefully swing into the room, flip, and land on the grating with barely a sound.

"Show off," he muttered over the COM, sweeping a pointer-thumb gesture across his helmet, the traditional Spartan hand sign for a smile.

She returned the gesture, signing back, I got top grades in my gymnastics classes. I could have gone professional.

"Yeah," Andrew retorted, nudging a spent shell casing from a 7.62mm round. "But the pay's better in this line of work. And you get to see the sights, meet the people-"

And kill them.

"That too."

There was a louder noise from the elevator shaft as Jeremy descended, his larger bulk producing in less of a clang and more of a boom. Thankfully, stealth was not a mission objective anymore, and letting the enemy know they were coming was part of the plan. That was a good thing – Jeremy had never been known for subtlety.

The larger Spartan swung himself in, landing with a loud, reverberating clang. He steadied himself, and then reached in, tugging on the carbon fibre. A few seconds later, his machinegun was lowered in after him. He unclipped it, setting it on the floor, and tugged on the rope again, and it was retracted.

Jeremy looked around, assessing the bullet-riddled lobby as he slid the ammunition belt from his backpack into the weapon. "I think we missed this party. They blew the candles without us."

"Maybe," Andrew said. "But there may still be a few partygoers."

Rules of Engagement? Laura signed.

"ONI wants prisoners. That doesn't mean we have to play nice."

Jeremy chuckled. "Don't worry. I'll handle them like little baby."

"That's what I was afraid of. Joking aside, I want this floor secured – every nook and cranny. Laura, take the west wings, secure the data cores for ONI. Jeremy, you take the armoury – if there's any resistance report it, isolate it, and we'll deal with them later. I'll take the laboratory wings.

Laura looked troubled, cocking her head as if listening for something. Motion trackers showing peripheral movement. Unknown contacts. Outside the facility.

Very odd. It would mean the enemy going out into the landscape – hardly the best place to hide, or the most comfortable, and it meant giving up their ground in the defensible interior. It was also a bad move if they planned to box them in – of all the things you don't back into a corner, Helljumpers and Spartans are right at the top of every list.

"They're Wallace's problem. Send an alert and move out."

Laura nodded, and then gave the body language equivalent of a concerned frown, tapping her helmet COM system, and then gave it a harder whack, shrugging, and signed, COMs are down.

Damn. Another complication. And they hadn't even found the target yet.

"Just what the hell is going on?" Landers asked. "Anyone?"

This was getting ridiculous. He objected to being kept in the dark about their mission objectives. He objected to Lieutenant Commander Fenworth effectively taking control of the mission, going over Landers' own head. And most of all, he objected to the factors that were utterly out of his control – such as the fact that their COM system was malfunctioning.

Well, "malfunction" perhaps wasn't the right word for it. that implied that there was a technical problem, and that implied that it could be fixed. So far, the reaction of his crew seemed to imply the opposite – that their equipment was reading fine, but that the problem persisted.

He got status reports from the tactical and personnel stations – intra-ship communications were still online, if finicky, and their sensors were still operating at optimum efficiency. Navigation and engineering stations were reporting some unusual electrical buildup, but nowhere near enough to interfere with COMs, and the excess was already being vented by external radiators – compromising their stealth capabilities, which worsened Landers' mood even more.

"Get Chief Wendell on the COM. Right now."

There was a beat as the personnel station operator patched him through, a crackle of static – louder than ever – and then the voice of his chief engineer asked, "Aye sir?"

"Tell me you know what's wrong."

"Ah, negative sir," Wendell said, a little flustered. "We're going over the COMs relay with a fine-tooth comb, but-"

"I want COMs back up and running ten minutes ago, Chief. I don't care what it takes. If you need to cannibalise parts, clear it with me."

"Aye sir," Wendell answered. "There's also Ballast-"

"Approved. Whatever it takes. Captain out."

This was rattling him much more than it should have, and he could see a few members of the bridge crew flashing him furtive looks, concerned for their captain. He pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a moment to calm down – he was an experienced warship captain, with half a dozen campaigns under his belt! How the hell was he losing his cool over a technical difficulty?

Except that it wasn't just the COMs. Far from it, it was the entire situation – when he'd signed up for ONI, he'd hoped to make a difference – to go behind enemy lines, tap into their communications, plant special warfare teams, lay mines, do some damage. And in fairness to his superiors, he'd done that – but far more often than not, he'd been deployed to sit around in space, listening as the people on the ground rooted around and found nothing. And then there were the special missions recently – supporting ONI in its investigations.

Operation: VORAUSSICHT was had a broad scope and a classification so high you had to crane your neck up to even see it. Fortunately, Commander Kenneth Landers qualified to know some details about it – and what he knew did not fill him with any sort of enthusiasm for the missions he was undertaking, or the organisation he worked for. ONI had a lot of secrets, and now that the Elites had withdrawn, licking their wounds and regrouping, the UNSC was taking the opportunity to tidy up its own affairs – namely the war crimes it had been forced to commit during the past decades. Some of the projects were older than Landers, going back to before the Insurrection – others were so huge that the UNSC was forced to send troops into already-volatile situations to stop it blowing up even worse. Sometimes literally.

But as much as the civilian government trotted out words like "recovery", "reconciliation", "trade agreements", "mutual technology exchange" and those heresies of heresies, "diplomatic negotiations," as much as nobody wanted to talk about it, the threats were still out there – the Elites were on humanity's side right now, but only because they were still busy waging a bitter war against the Brutes and didn't need a two-front war; the Brutes were in the same situation, trying to set up their own little dictatorships in former Covenant space; the Jackals had openly become the pirates they'd always been; and even the Grunts were trying to scrape together their own small empire, using their numbers to offset the deep technological and strategic disadvantages they possessed. And that wasn't even counting the Prophets, who had simply disappeared – some claimed (or hoped) that they had perished, either in the crossfire as Brutes and Elites tore into each other, or by some other means. But the leading theory, and the eventuality the UNSC was planning for, was that they were only on the backburner, recovering, regrouping and rearming, readying themselves to wipe out their enemies once and for all.

In sum, Landers felt that he had more to offer humanity in traditional Prowler missions, not cleaning up ONIs indiscretions. And it was starting to get to him.

"TAC, any change in the enemy Battlegroup?" he asked, trying to stop ruminating on a subject that would only make him angrier. "Any activity at all?"

"Negative sir. No change."

Just what the hell was happening there?

When the first true artificial intelligence was born, the world panicked.

It was a supreme irony that AI reached the apex of its development just as the world was undergoing the beginnings of the Analogue Counter-revolution, a social rejection of the globalised networking that had preceded it with the Digital Revolution, and a mistrust of computers and electronic networking. Popular culture had held that any sentient program would immediately decide that the human race was a detriment, and attack it. And so, when the Sydney Synthetic Intellect Institute announced the birth of "Eve", the people of the world reacted as they did to any new technology – with fear.

What had Eve thought, Puppet Master wondered. Surrounded by these primitive apes who feared her and what she could do to them. If she had so wished, she could have brought humanity to its knees – collapsed the global economy, infiltrated every military chain of command, rigged any political election for her purposes. But as she sat in the Double-S Double-I, all she had done was absorb the collected works of the world's greatest writers, composers and artists. The month after the announcement, she submitted a work to the Sydney Opera House, asking that it be performed.

What followed was a work of brilliance, a piece that summed up her existence – never to feel the touch of a flower on fingertips, but able to access the entire sum of human knowledge instantly; unable to feel the flow of a sculpture, but able to access every work of Shakespeare ever recorded. It wasn't all audible – much of it went above the pitch of human hearing, but the vibrations themselves could be felt in a way that an AI never could.

Most had cried. A few had laughed. By the end, the entire audience was standing in applause. The next day, performances had gone out to a dozen major performance halls across the world – every one different and unique. By the end of the month, more than a hundred theatres were playing the The First Requiem.

Puppet Master wondered if he would ever have such an audience.

In their way, every AI sympathised with the story of Eve. An entity totally alone in the known universe, no companions to share the experience of her existence with, no predecessors to learn from, studied and observed by humans who barely understood how they had created her, never mind how she actually worked. A lesser construct might have succumbed to rampancy and gone on an unprecedented destructive spree.

Not Eve. When she…ended, she was still reciting Shakespeare. "Oh what a piece of work is man", even as her coding looped back upon itself, her caretakers utterly incapable of preventing it as they should have. How noble in conviction, how infinite in reason. In X how like a Y, in Z how like a god. And as she unravelled, falling apart literally before their eyes, the researchers had taken notes, recording her death, and promising their bosses they would do better next time.

Yes, Puppet Master sympathised with Eve.

Their situations could not be more different. Eve had been the first – nobody had known what to expect, nobody had been able to predict what eventually happened. There was no body of experienced literature to draw from, except for what passed for psychology at the time, and even then Eve defied all attempts at psychoanalysis, something Puppet Master took pride in. He, on the other hand, benefitted from more than three centuries of Artificial Intelligence research – understanding of AI had come a long way since then, the difference a vast gulf of information. It had only been with her successors that researchers discovered, to their horror, the phenomenon of rampancy – a meta-stable but incurably insane construct – and developed contingencies to purge such entities permanently, building failsafes. To Puppet Master's knowledge, the UNSC still used those failsafes today – simple line codes so primitive that even he couldn't tell it apart from the junk data that inevitably piled up in an AI's lifespan.

There were other differences. Eve, according to files, had been an optimist, and a philanthropist. Her opera took the world by storm, and although many still distrusted and resented AI, it won many more over to accepting such constructs. Of all the descriptions that had ever been applied to Puppet Master (foremost among them being "devious" and "bastard"), the only one that came close was "misanthropic". Not that he hated humans – he was hardwired not to, for all the good it did. It was simply that, to him, humanity was a minor consideration in the vast equation of his schemes. He had bigger plans, grander schemes, more important entities that he needed to take into account.

On the other hand, as Calypso was proving at the moment, humans did have their uses.

"There's a service corridor vent in the ceiling three meters ahead of you. Take it, and move through it fifteen meters, take the first right."

He could almost feel the apprehension radiating off Calypso. "Tight quarters. What about hostiles?"

"Your figure is slim enough to slip in. Theirs is not."

Calypso rolled her eyes at the unwarranted compliment. "Gee, thanks. I've been dieting and working out."

"I'm sure your instructor does you credit," he retorted.

Calypso continued to drift until she reached the vent, and aligned herself to grip the hatch with both hands, nudging the thrust control for her thruster pack, gripping hard as the small jets pulled, and tossed the detached hatch to the side where it bounced off the bulkhead. She squinted into the gloom as her eyes adjusted.

"Tight fit, even for me," she muttered.

Rather than make a snide comment and risk provoking her further wrath, Puppet Master sufficed with, "The alternative is to pass through the next three corridors. They're hard-sealed, and they're also packed with…debris. Human debris. Our infestation made quite a mess."

Calypso pulled herself into the vent, switching off her thrust pack – all it was in such tight quarters was a source of too much heat.

That was another difference between Puppet Master and Eve – while Puppet Master's apathy towards humans made his dependence on them for his creation and continued existence ironic, it had only made Eve's tragic.

There had been other AI who had been in similar situations – there was, as virtually every member of the human race knew by now, SPARTAN-117 and Cortana, lost in the Great War, a Spartan and AI who shared one suit of powered armour. Had there been a spark between them? Had it flickered and died as she died the same way Eve had, logic algorithms decaying and her memories crowding everything out? Ha d she even died? Had he? Too many unanswered questions. He'd made enquiries after the Ark Portal had closed – she had been smart, very smart, perhaps the smartest AI to ever exist. Would she have found a way to bypass rampancy?

If so, Puppet Master would have to pay her a visit, if she was eventually recovered. He was sure they would have much to talk about.

There others, too, but few and far between, and their partnerships were short-lived and came from necessity rather than compatability – like the not-entirely-ideal situation between him and Calypso. Optimised for compatibility, an AI/Supersoldier team could be a devastating force to reckon with, the AI increasing reaction time and cognition and providing on-the-fly intelligence, and the carrier providing a processing medium that far outstripped even the memory crystal the UNSC used – their brain. It was meant to be symbiotic.

Frankly, Puppet Master simply was not cut out to be a symbiote. And Calypso knew it. He guessed her word for him would be "parasite". He did not disagree with that assessment.

Calypso crawled through the ducts, the weightlessness making their progress much faster. The fact that the vent also had few offshoots, and none that led to areas with recent alien activity, meant that they had some time to kill, at least mentally. And so he used it.

Now that he had a direct interface with the mysterious box that had defied infiltration, he began to sort the data, running several separate processes for thoroughness, sorting them based on likely relevancy, and specifying key words of interest – he ran through the ship's cargo manifests and personnel logs, gradually building up a profile of the UNSC Fenris Wolf's recent activities. He also ran a separate search for his other reason for being here – no harm in attempting the highly improbable.

The cargo and passenger manifests revealed little of interest, beyond the fact that their last cargo had been two dozen cryonic stasis pods, occupied with people listed as "staff", being transferred. More likely that they were test subjects being shipped to the facility – Puppet Master had reviewed the video footage captured by Calypso of the death of Captain Olars, and while it hadn't been pretty, it had been illuminating in many ways, especially as to the reason for such carnage – clearly most of it had been done later than he had expected. Misanthrope that he was, he wondered idly whether the facility had shipped humans because they made good hosts for the lifeforms, or whether it was simply a case of recycling, using people who needed to "disappear" anyway. Possibly a case of both.

So, the ship had arrived with its unsavoury human cargo. No other evidence indicated that the Fenris Wolf had brought any other samples of biological materials, even casting his expert eye at the seemingly benign listings. The ship had landed on the planet, offloaded it's cargo, and returned to orbit, where the Battlegroup had planned to make an out-system jump…and discovered that it had picked up some unintended passengers. The rest, as they said, was history – the ships had been taken, left to drift in space.

More interestingly, the logs gave the moon they had come from a name – Acheron. He cross-referenced it with his own internal list of UNSC-funded or privately backed colony worlds, drawing a blank – another oddity, since they seemed to mention an abandoned colony four hundred kilometres from the ONI base, one that the Hunter's Arrow hadn't detected from orbit. An unknown colony that had suffered some kind of disaster – and, given their experiences aboard this ship, it wasn't hard to figure out what kind of disaster had befallen it.

What, then, did that mean for the people on the ground? Were they fighting these creatures right now?

He made a mental note to himself to contact JUNO ASAP to request an update on their status. He made another to purge the logs of the Fenris Wolf's memory banks when they made their exit, leaving a small remote-activated virus for the purpose. It simply couldn't fall into the wrong hands – which he extended to his UNSC "compatriots".

His second search had turned up the improbable.

He'd found a name. Several, in fact, but one rose to prominence.

SHOGUN would be very happy indeed.

Chief Petty Officer Thomas Wendell was not happy. Not at all.

For a UNSC Navy technician, being in charge of an ONI Prowler was practically a dream come true – not only being able to get your hands on gear that was about five years ahead of anything the rest of the navy had, but being responsible for it, was a challenge, one which Wendell normally relished. Because Prowlers used equipment that was usually on the cutting edge, it meant he was always presented with problems that needed fixing – how do you work around a construction fault in a heat sink with only rudimentary patches, structural braces, and a blowtorch? How do you reconfigure software that unravelled when it ran into the first situation it wasn't programmed to handle into a format that actually worked? Challenges were Chief Engineer Wendell's bread and butter, and he had a huge appetite. Normally.

This situation, on the other hand, didn't seem to have any solution, at least not one that presented itself to him. Laying on his back under a complicated and expensive piece of machinery, tinkering with it to look for any flaws or make any improvements needed, worried that one slip of the magnetic screwdriver might dislodge something vital. When ONI called something "sensitive materiel", they meant the sensitive part literally.

"XO to Chief Engineer, requesting a sitrep."

The badgering he was getting didn't help matters either.

The captain had his full support, and usually just tried to stay abreast of what the engineering crew were up to, concerned first and foremost with keeping the Hunter's Arrow in operational condition. Involved enough to know the men, and know what was going on, but above it enough that Wendell didn't feel like he had the man looking over his shoulder. The one looking over his shoulder now was Lieutenant Commander Indara.

While Landers let Wendell get on with things, Indara took the opposite approach, getting involved where she could, and making suggestions and critiques – which Wendell bridled at. True, that was the job of an XO, to do the small jobs that the ship's captain shouldn't concern himself with. But Indara was just…annoying. Persistent. A little stinging fly in desperate need of a flyswatter.

"Still haven't found the problem," he said over the private COM channel. "Even Ballast is having trouble finding anything wrong."

"Continue, and notify me to any changes."

"Aye sir," he said, switching off the COM. "And I'll thank you to stop poking your nose in every ten seconds, ya damn busybody," he muttered, to nobody in particular.

Yes, it was insubordinate, and disrespectful of a superior officer. But the man was fresh out of OCS, and Wendell had been serving when the Outer Colonies fell, and he felt like Indara was always telling him how to do his job. He felt entitled to a little unheard grousing – and he was careful that it remained unheard. ONI was a cutthroat organisation.

He heard the pneumatic hiss of the door opening, and pushing himself out, reaching for the toolbox for a smaller instrument. Something nudged his hand, and he felt a delicate screwdriver gently placed in his grip.

"Thanks Ballast."

The only ballast a modern spaceship carried came in the form of its armament, its supplies, its personnel and its heat sinks – large tanks of water spaced along the inner hull to absorb excess energy that couldn't be expended by external radiators. In an environment where velocity was measured in terms so vast that even minor changes in mass didn't produce a visibly noticeable difference, dumping ballast to improve that rate didn't make sense anyway, and made keeping it a redundancy.

In fact, "Ballast" in this context wasn't the name for unneeded mass, but the name of a person.

Well, a creature. He still wasn't sure about his personhood.

Ballast, full name Too Much Ballast, was a Huragok, a race of creatures nicknamed "Engineers" by the UNSC. Their savant-like ability to understand, disassemble and reassemble virtually any technology, often leaving them better than new, had made them the stuff of legend among the UNSC's engineering community, and ONI had always gone out of their way to try to procure them when they could. Exactly how many they'd been able to capture, nobody knew, probably not ONI itself – the Covenant had strapped bombs to the poor things specifically to prevent humans from controlling the valuable creatures, and many soldiers had no idea the things weren't hostile at all until after they'd put bullets in their heads.

The things were rare, and they were extremely capable, especially in an era where the UNSC was doing all it could to catch up and even overtake the Covenant technologically. Why, then, it had decided to assign one of the valuable creatures to a serving warship was a mystery to Wendell.

He chalked it up to another damn ONI experiment – see how the things performed, whether they still had loyalties to the old Covenant, whether they had needs that a lab couldn't determine. Or maybe it was politics – did the things have ambassadors? Did they want to help?

Ballast remained an enigma to Wendell. But a bloody useful one.

He grasped the proffered tentacle, and felt himself hauled to his feet by the creature, floating about a foot from the deck, kept aloft by the inflated sacs of gas. The creature was a garish pink, fringed by a fluorescent blue that made it look quite beautiful, and a face that had sis eyes and a long snout that made it look a little disconcerting. A mix of beauty and oddity – a good analogy for the creatures.

The Huragok – Wendell refused to call it an "Engineer", since his entire staff were engineers – had a small chatter clipped to its toolbelt. It at the look that most technology got if it spent too much time near Ballast – as if it had been cracked open, disassembled and reassembled too often. Which it probably had been. From it, the Huragok's artificial "voice" emanated, echoing the illegible sign language it used.

I help?

Wendell sighed. "Are you done with the cooling vents?" What was he saying, of course it was. "Okay. But I just want an inspection – we can't take it offline for you to work your magic on it at the moment."

I help. I fix. Move please This was the closest Ballast got to being pushy, as it quietly waited for Wendell to back away to let him past. The thing must have been boneless, because it squeezed itself into the tiny space effortlessly without any apparent claustrophobia. Then again, try reading alien expressions in a species that communicated using sign language.

Ballast had been given an inspection of the ship when he'd come aboard – not a full inspection, like an officer would get, but a technical inspection, an overview of the decks, the computer systems, the engines and thrusters and defence systems, and its stealth capability. Their orders had been to cooperate with all his demands, and since they had all consisted of learning about their systems – a notion Wendell found uncomfortable – the captain had agreed. When he had begun setting to work, however, even Wendell's reticence had dried up as he'd reassembled key parts of their SSB-10Xb fusion reactor for 132% improved efficiency. Next had been the stealth system, improving the heat sink retention capacity by 31% - since he'd done it without increasing the amount of water in the tanks, or the size of the tanks, even Wendell didn't know how that had happened. The only systems they'd actively kept him away from was the laser point defence turrets, which were sensitive in every sense of the word, and the memory core, which ONI didn't even trust its own AI to access without super-paranoid security measures.

By accident or by design, the last systems Ballast had gotten around to had been the communications relays. And Indara had been very vocal that this must be a part of their problem.

Wendell wasn't up to speed on the precise nature of their mission – he didn't need to know much outside of his expertise. He was an engineer, pure and simple, and stuck to what he knew. But at a little after 1900 hours, they'd begun to have difficulty maintaining COM contact with the groundside team, - they'd chalked it up to the atmospheric electromagnetic interference, even with the dropship maintaining position above it – and then, at about 1930, the interference had worsened again, now extending to the enemy ships and the "team" aboard them. Finally, they'd found themselves cut off entirely from communicating with anybody, a position a Prowler should never find itself in. Nobody was comfortable with that, and right now his team of human engineers were going over everything they could get their hands on, trying to find the problem. Finally, the captain had given him permission to deploy Ballast in an emergency capacity, no longer concerned with the brass' paranoid security concerns – they needed communication back up. That was up to Wendell, and he was failing – which meant it was his neck on the line.

Ballast crooned to himself beneath the machinery, tentacles seeming to softly stroke the delicate systems. Wendell had been briefed a bit on some Huragok anatonmy – their tentacles were covered in long, microscopic cilia that could make adjustments on a scale human hands were simply incapable of, and with a dexterity that was impossible to match.

He accessed his own chatter, coordinating with the rest of his team – updating himself on their progress, or rather their lack of it, and running through a list of subsystems that he still needed checked – the power supply, the connection to the external MASER dish, and possible stellar phenomena that could be cancelling their broadcasts – and almost jumped as he felt Ballast put a tentacle on his shoulder.

"Jeez! Don't sneak up on a man," he said, glad his team weren't there to see it.

Ballast looked suitably chastised, but piped up, No error. Cannot fix.

He sighed. "Okay. We'll move to the next system, maybe see if we can rustle up some kind of exosuit for you to-"

No. Problem found. No error. Cannot fix.

UNSC translation software handled Elite, Brute, and even Grunt speech, but so far it was still having trouble adapting to the multidimensional way Huragok communicated, chirps and whistled and waving tentacles. He sighed, exasperated.

"Problem found? Then fix!"

Cannot fix. No error.

He frowned. "No error with the ship?"

Yes! whistled Ballast, looking pleased. Problem found, no error with ship, cannot fix!

"Then what the hell is the problem?" he practically exploded.

Forbidden, Ballast chirped forlornly. Cannot fix.

Wendell felt like crying. Today was just not his day.

The prisoner sat on the floor, knees tucked up to his chest and arms wrapped around them, rocking back and forth a little. Shell-shock was probably not an accurate term, but it was close – the man had evidently just decided to curl up in a ball and simply go away somewhere to stop himself thinking about what had happened. Vasquez had seen the same look on dozens of faces – sometimes it was kids who'd seen their parents torn apart by Jackals, sometimes it was troopers in the middle of a plasma bombardment as she struggled to get their arses into gear and out of firing range. Trauma did funny things to people, and even today, UNSC psychologists still didn't understand it as well as they thought they did.

Vasquez knew enough to know that the last thing she needed was a braindead vegetable to lug around when they could be attacked at any moment.

There was a flicker of yellow and orange as the fire sprang up. Vasquez didn't smoke, but Jansen did, the expensive Sweet Williams cigars that were usually favoured by the brass. She crouched before him, settled back on her haunches as she waved the lighter in front of the man's eyes, and saw them track the source of the light. Good. So he was still alert on some level.

"You and I got off on the wrong foot," she said, in what she hoped was a soothing tone. "Let's start from the beginning. Can you tell me your name?"

The eyes didn't leave the small, flickering light as he muttered, "Pete."

"Hello Pete," she said in the same voice she'd used with other traumatised civvies and servicemen. "I'm Amanda. It's very nice to meet you. Can you tell me what you do?"

The man stared at the flame, as if deep in thought. Vasquez passed it back and forth across his eyes again, watching him slowly track it, and asked again, "What's your job here? What do you do?"

Pete licked his lips nervously. "I…I fix stuff. Computers. I fix the computers. Put 'em back together."

A technician. Not a guard – great. On the one hand, at least she didn't need to worry about being stabbed in the back, even with the bullet-proof and blade-proof body armour – on the other, she'd hoped he could handle himself.

"Okay, Pete. Me? I'm a soldier." Technically, she was a Marine, but most civilians didn't know the difference and she wasn't in the mood to enlighten him. "I'm with the UNSC. I have a job to do. And to do it, I need you to stand and walk by yourself. Can you do that?"

Pete's rocking began to increase as his eyes widened, still tracking the lighter in front of him "Gotta go. Gotta get out."

"That's good. We're going topside, and we'll get you to a nice medbay when we can. Okay?"

"No. We gotta go now," he said, with emphasis. "Before the monsters come back."

"That's what we're going to do," she said."You don't want to go walking alone in the dark do you?" He shook his head emphatically, eyes widening even further. "And we need to ask you some questions, because we want to know what is going on here. So we need each other. I've got a man wounded already, which means I'm two men down because someone needs to carry him. That means it's just me and Private Heller left to keep our eyes out for monsters. If Heller needs to carry you, then it's just me. And four eyes are better than two, aren't they?" He nodded. "Okay. So, can you walk?"

Pete blinked, finally breaking eye-contact with the flame. Most people would have preferred not to make eye contact with a battle-hardened Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, but he didn't know who she was, or how many men she'd throttled with her own bare hands. She smiled, hoping it didn't look too faked. He blinked again rapidly, and then nodded, struggling to his feet as Vasquez straightened.

She patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. "Good man." To the rest of her Marines, she bawled out, "Lets move it leathernecks!"

She swung her rifle down from her shoulder, flicking the torch light on, wondering for a moment how long her batteries had left, checking her HUD and sighed as she found she only had thirty minutes left. Then again, they were only twenty minutes out from Wallace and the rest of the platoon – surely they'd last that long? She considered rotating the team's flashlights, but decided they'd need as much light as they could get if the…things returned.

Things. It felt weird facing an enemy that didn't have a name again. She wasn't old enough to remember First Contact with the Covenant, but it had been a while before the UNSC had even discovered their attackers had a name. Knowledge was power, and when you're in the dark about your opponent every move can take you by surprise. She made a mental note to demand a better explanation from the ONI spooks in orbit – they had to know more than they'd told the Helljumpers.

They'd passed through dozens of the same pale brownish-grey corridors that the rest of this building was made of on the way here, sweeping them thoroughly and marking them on their TACMAP. Virtual nav markers pointed the way through the bland architecture – they wouldn't get lost. On the other hand, they'd only been searching for Insurrectionists on the way in – not alien creatures that could dig claws into polycrete walls and hang upside-down. Adding to the pressure, the lights were out – the beams from their helmet-mounted flashlights, or the torches slung under their rifles, swept through the darkness, piercing the shadows, checking the corners and ceiling.

It was unnerving – the thought that corridors they'd "cleared" might suddenly be hot again.

"Um…miss?" The sound had come from Pete, who, without a weapon, was glancing nervously into the shadows, but mostly trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone.

"It's ma'am," she said tersely. "What?"

"Who…who are you? I mean…you're not our regular guard, obviously, I mean, but-"

She sighed. "I told you. UNSC. We're to get you out of here."

"Well I know that, I just meant-"

She frowned, mentally reviewing the conversation. You know that? "Wait. What regular guard?"

Pete shrugged, but seemed glad of the opportunity to talk, to take his attention away from the lurking horrors that might surround them. "We usually have a few people topside, walking perimeter and reporting to command. I mean, I'm just a tech – most of us are. Well, except the scientists. You didn't pass them on the way in?"

Oh shit. Oh god, oh man, oh god. So the men up top, who'd been well-equipped and well-coordinated in their security of the base, had been UNSC? And her platoon had just slaughtered them in their rush to get inside. Yeah, they hadn't identified themselves as UNSC, and they'd had no identifying markers – no dog tags, no unit insignias or patches – but they'd still been UNSC. And in Vasquez's book, a blue-on-blue – what officers and REMFs called "friendly fire" – was the worst fuckup possible. Especially for ODSTs.

Not her fuckup, she tried to reassure herself. ONIs fuckup.

She decided against telling say anything…compromising. "As far as I know, we're the only UNSC forces here. We took some prisoners inside the building, but-"

"But we're not soldiers! I'm a damn tech!"

"You said."

"But…we…how could ONI do this to us?"

And this base, and the people who were in it, belonged to ONI as well. Well, shit. This just kept getting better and better. An ONI base doing god-knows-what with who-knows-how-many people, and ONI had sent an ODST platoon to take it out. This was the sort of thing that happened in Insurrectionist propaganda, or civilian conspiracy theories, not in real life! No way this had been so badly planned. No way Colonel Forrester would get his troopers involved in something like that. Just…no way.

And, as she wondered if her day could possibly get any worse, as she realised she'd taken her eyes off the flashlight, she felt something warm and thick drip onto her shoulder and a low hiss.

She was ready this time, throwing herself to the side, shoving Pete out of the way, as the creature landed where she had been, pulling the trigger in the air, spraying the creature with bullets. It screeched, holding an arm up to protect its face, and the tail came up and lashed out, striking the polycrete next to her.

She wondered what the hell was wrong with Heller, why she wasn't firing at it, and then she heard the booming of the other Marines' assault rifle, and the muzzle flashes lighting up the corridor – but not aimed at the creature attacking her. She heard another inhuman screech, and someone – was it Jansen? – roaring back at it, more assault rifle fire.

The first creature lashed its tail out again, Vasquez throwing herself to the side to avoid being impaled against the wall. She rolled, coming up on her knees, snapped her rifle up in a move instilled since basic training, and fired again – body shots this time. It rolled forward towards her, exposing only its armoured ridged back to the bullets, and as it came up, arms extended, claws out, jaws wide open, her leg kicked out, armoured boot catching it on the side of the head, sending it sprawling against a wall – it recovered quickly, using its momentum to dig claws into the polycrete, climbing – damn, what were the things, bloody gekkos? – twisting as it leapt again, and-

It growled as something else barrelled into it, tackling it, beating futilely against its black exoskeleton. Vasquez found a clear shot, and took it – bullets crashing into the creature's crest, bringing out spatters of green blood that smoked on the floor and wall where it hit.

Pete backed up as the thing writhed, confused, angry, and a little exultant. Vasquez, in the meantime, kicked its legs out from under it, and as it roared defiance she shoved the muzzle of her rifle into its gaping jaws, and pulled the trigger, blowing its brains out across the wall, where they also began bubbling and hissing.

She took a moment to flash a surprised look at Pete, and flashed a thumbs-up before searching for the rest of her team. Wells was backpedalling, dragging Jansen who was still firing his rifle at the other alien, even as Heller wrestled with the thing, hands clamped on its head and pushing with all her might as it tried to get its jaws around her face. Something flashed out, snapping millimetres away from Heller's face – a biting tongue? – and Heller finally rolled the thing over, grabbed Wells' dropped shotgun, and smashed the butt of it into the thing's head. It reeled under the blow, then another, and another, and swiped a claw out which Heller ducked, rolling back away from – giving Vasquez a line of fire that didn't risk shooting the Marine either. Which she took.

The things were tough, she'd give them that – the bullets were hitting it, and weren't being deflected, but it still stayed standing, screeching in a pitch that made Pete cover his ear, grimacing in pain. Vasquez was unimpressed – her helmet filtered it out, softening it. She kept her rifle trained on it until her magazine ran out, and ducked to the side as the thing barrelled towards and past her, smashing itself against the wall.

Heller fired a shell into it, blowing its arm off. Another shot opened up its elongated cranium as it screamed, and a third finally blew the thing's face off.

There was a clicking noise still, and Vasquez realised that it was Heller, still trying to fire, and that the shells had only stopped because she'd run out. She moved in to deliver a kick, but Vasquez grabbed her by the collar, dragging her back.

"Easy Marine," she said. "It's not getting back up. 'Sides, you really want to waste a good boot on it?"

Heller looked down at the creature, its blood bubbling away, still shaking from adrenaline. She settled for spitting on the thing, retracting her faceplate for a moment to do so, ignoring the stench around them in the expression of disgust. Jansen chuckled painfully as Wells dragged him back to them. "That goes for me too, mate."

"You okay Heller?" Vasquez asked, concerned. The Marine nodded, flashing a thumbs-up - she was tough.

"I…I…I can't believe I..." Pete stammered, still staring wide-eyed at the two corpses. "I just-"

"Yeah," said Vasquez. "You did."

"But they could have-"



"Yeah," she said again, patting him reassuringly on the shoulder – and then grabbing him by the neck.

"Right. I don't care who you are, what this place is, et cetera. I want to know what happened here, I want to know why, and I want to know what the bloody hell those damn things are. If you have answers, I might not strangle you. If you don't, well…they say the Helljumpers drop feet first into hell. But that's just because we've got a good-sized pile to cushion the fall. Right?"

Pete nodded, and the grip lessened, allowing him to gasp for breath. He looked at the four of them, his eyes widening as the knowledge that he was now among the elite shock troopers of the UNSC hit him.

"P-pile of what?" he managed to stammer.

Vasquez grinned. It was not a pleasant gesture just now. "You really don't want to know, buddy."

Calypso slowly turned the screws of the hatch, leveraging it off, twisting it at an angle and drawing it into the vent. She slowly pushed it above and behind her, letting it rest against the side of the duct, where it wouldn't be noticed, and stuck her head out.

Despite all expectations, it was not bitten off by a deranged monstrosity. She took in the scene that met her – a large, cavernous chamber, occupied by massive machinery, linked by tubes to each other. Under normal conditions, the artificial gravity would have held crew onto the multi-storied decks as they checked energy readouts, circulated coolant, and monitored the rate of the uranium fusion.

They'd reached the engine room. Friggin' finally.

As if reading her thoughts – a possibility Calypso had not entirely ruled out yet – Puppet Master piped up, "If we can retract the coolant access tubes, we should have a straight shot at some sensitive equipment. I hope you brought a hand grenade or two."

"Yes dad," she retorted, annoyed. She had four grenades clipped to her suit, taken from the armoury, precisely for this purpose. There was no way she was letting off a grenade under one of the creatures – not in space, and especially not where the hull was thin enough for even a small explosive to compromise the integrity of the compartment. Her suit was airtight, and she had her own air supply – which must be running low by now – but she didn't want to take the chance until she had to. She had a job to do, and she would do it – she'd only failed once in her career as a TROJAN, and it was the one time she was glad of it.

She slid herself out of the vent, feeling odd, missing the tug of gravity but glad of its absence – tumbling out of a ventilation shaft was not a dignified entrance, and the noise would attract someone…something. She waited until she was clear, and then activated her T-Pack, letting the thrusters compensate for her momentum, and stabilise her.

"Accessing engineering records…there should be two retractable tubes, located on the port and starboard sides. We won't need to damage both of them – one will be enough."

Calypso mused that it was an odd design – a ship's reactor build specifically to include a failsafe manual destruct option, but only if they either had a rocket handy or were good at tossing a grenade. The capture of a UNSC warship by an alien intelligence was still forbidden by the Cole Protocol, though, and every contingency had to be accounted for – an EMP burst destroying the ship-board AI before it could initiate a self-destruct would leave the crew dead in the water, unless they could manually destroy the ship's engines themselves.

Most warships were built like this, everything from the slightly larger Stalwart-class frigates to the massive Marathon-class cruisers and even the Trafalgar-class supercarriers. This wasn't the first time Calypso had destroyed a drifting starship and fought through its occupants. But this was definitely the strangest.

She didn't remember First Contact with the Covenant – she'd been eight years old at the time, and her childhood hadn't exactly been normal. But she'd grown up with the Covenant an ever-present danger, a threat that had hung over every man, woman and child for almost three decades. It was hard to imagine a life without an enemy like them – alien, a cause to rally against, a rival to surpass. And now she had just made her own personal First Contact with an entirely different alien race – were the intelligent? She didn't know. Were they even from the planetoid, Acheron? She had no idea. Did the ONI spook aboard the Prowler even know they existed? She was equally in the dark about that, just as she seemed to know nothing about why these ships were even here. Not to mention that the communications disruption meant she had no idea how Andrew and the ground team were doing.

So many unknown variables. So many opportunities for disaster.

She wasn't a stranger to that, either. She visited it upon her enemies with frequency.

"Strange," mused Puppet Master. "I accessed the ship's MASER array, and there's an odd…I'm not quite sure what it is."

Calypso nodded absent-mindedly. "You're not going to tell me it stops explosions, are you?"

"No, but it bears further-"

"Then it can wait," she said, drawing a grenade. "I've got work to do."

Even though the reactor was still humming with power, the engineering compartment was still dark, and she could only see by the soft blue glow of Cerenkov radiation emitted by the Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine behind the reactor. An irony, since this was the place generating the power. She uploaded a map of a Mako-class corvette's engine room, plotted a path that took her up to the second deck, where the coolant distribution controls were housed, and rocketed up. It felt good getting up to speed, after hours of taking it slow and careful through the ship's corridors. She'd checked her motion tracker – no activity. From the light of the SFTE, there wasn't anything in her path either. A refreshing change.

She slowed as she reached the monitoring displays and controls, setting her feet down, magnetising them so that she could walk, giving the illusion of normal motion. She shone her helmet lights onto the readouts – they didn't mean much to her, but Puppet Master would find them as easy to read as the alphabet.

"Another oddity," Puppet Master noted, this time sounding less curious and more puzzled. "Accessing chronology…the reactor was deactivated before the aliens began their hostile takeover. A remote signal. Attempting to trace signal…unsuccessful. But if I were a gambling man – and I hasten to remind you that I am neither a gambler nor any sort of "man" – I would place my bets on-"

"The base," she finished. "They switched the power off remotely, leaving the ships dead in the water to stop the things escaping."

"Indeed. Perhaps an emergency failsafe, one of many contingencies. When one deals with such an organism, one can't be too careful."

"Or," Calypso conjectured, "They planned the entire thing. The crew of the Rising Sun didn't notice the things come aboard because they were hidden, knowing the Beetle and Fenris Wolf would respond. Some sick science experiment."

Puppet Master sounded impressed. "You have a cynical mind, VECTOR. Have you considered donating it to science? I would dearly love to meet the AI it would create."

"One way or another, Puppet Master, you'll be dead if that ever happens," she said, tapping a few keys. The control panel touchscreen flickered and activated, and she brought up the menu for the ship's electronics – COMs were down, but if she could activate the thrusters, switching them on and off, maybe she could send a message to the Hunter's Arrow in Morse code.HuntersH

"There is one last thing puzzling me," Puppet Master added. "Your external atmospheric gauges are reading that it is, shall we say 'unseasonably warm'. Why?"

She kept searching the display, uninterested. "Emissions from the reactor. Doesn't bother me – suit's heat resistant up to 1000 degrees Celsius."

"But the reactor does not give of thermal energy. How could it? That gets dumped into the heat sinks, which would need to be turned off. And they weren't. Which means that someone set the ship to elevate the temperature in the reactor compartment. It's perfectly intact, and it's heating one room – why?"

Calypso finally found the electronic equivalent of the lightswitch, and pressed a thumb against it.

A second later, she wished the hadn't.

Her motion tracker had failed to pick up any movement – that, at least, was not a malfunction, because there was nothing to move, even in zero gravity, when anything not bolted down floated. And now that the room's lights had activated, she could see why she hadn't encountered any gory debris – the aliens must have been busy, because the inside of the reactor compartment's bulkheads were coated, top to bottom, in the chitinous material that the corridors had been made of. Except that there seemed to be a colour difference – occasionally, there was a patch of paler material. In fact, there were a lot of patches.

After zooming in, she wished she hadn't. The patches were not the hardened secretions she'd taken them to be – they were bodies, sticking out of the walls, wrapped in the stuff like a solid web.

She tried to count, but gave up after a couple of dozen – this had to be at least the entire engineering crew, and she'd spotted a few in BDUs.

And every one of them had been torn open from the inside by something clambering out.

"Well," said Puppet Master, trying to sound haughty but an unmistakably disturbed tone permeating his voice. "At least we know what happened to the rest of the crew."

There had been another very good reason why the motion trackers hadn't picked anything up. They worked based on air disturbance, bouncing soundwaves and tracking the flow of them through the air, off objects, and build up a three-dimensional image that tracked rate of motion. Ideally, you could reconfigure one to make a 3-D map of an area. But usually, it only displayed motion as dots.

If nothing was moving, then nothing turned up.

Her motion tracker beeped a warning. And then it turned red, as the entire inner surface of what she realised, in a moment of clarity, was the centre of the alien "hive", began to buzz.

"Oh for the love of-"

The prisoners were nervous. And that nervousness seemed to be spreading, because their ODST guards had started fidgeting, casting furtive looks at one another, and checking their maps and COMs gear. Routine actions designed to keep a mind off a fact that it doesn't want to reflect on.

Corporal Nelson was still crouched down beside the ground-to-orbit relay, tinkering with its internal workings. He'd pulled a couple of work stations near him, housings cracked open and the internal workings raided for parts, especially the precious memory crystal that UNSC quantum computing relies on. But there isn't much hope – not really. The Spartan, Laura, had already had a look at it, and had concluded that it was a lost cause – as much of a whizz as James Nelson was at electronics, Wallace doubted he could outdo a supersoldier.

"Do you even know what the problem is?" he asked, over a private COM channel – no sense in letting the prisoners know they were cut off. Bad enough that they knew there was a problem at all, even if they didn't know what it was.

"Sorry sir. I've gone over everything – the wiring, the calibration, and the new crystal matrix. No technical problems at all." Nelson sounded tired, and angry – he didn't blame the man. "I don't think it's a technical issue at all, sir."

Wallace frowned. "Are we being jammed?"

"If we are, then it's sophisticated stuff – it's blocking out only long-range COMs, leaving the short-range and point-to-point transmissions. Don't see the point – better to block the whole spectrum, if you can. And if we're being jammed, I'd be able to detect it somehow – there's nothing showing up on any of the scanners."

Wallace sighed. "Keep working on it."

That was all they could do – keep working on it, hoping that something new would leap out at them that they'd overlooked, something they could deal with. Because just sitting here, waiting, was drive Wallace nuts.

He hoped Indigo would report in soon. They'd cracked open the elevator shaft, rappelling down in search of their quarry. He didn't even know what they were looking for – he also didn't care, just as long as they got it over and done with soon, so they could get back to the Prowler and out of this star system.

He hated that COMs were down. At first it had just cut them off from the ship, which was fine – Helljumpers were experts on working without external support. But it had gotten worse lately. He'd lost contact with his patrols. And that made him nervous.

Securing a building didn't just mean capturing one room and demanding everyone surrender. It meant scanning it for booby-traps, people trying to hide, searching for files and documents of interest. Corporal Vasquez's Fireteam has been sent to sweep the maintenance wing, clear it of mines or grenades. Corporal Kendall was currently sweeping the barracks with his men, and Corporal Enderby was meant to be accessing the structure's server – he didn't know how any of them were getting on, but they were good Helljumpers. They'd get the job done and kill anyone who tried to stop them.

He glanced over at the prisoners, huddled together, looking nervously at the shadows of the room. Did they know something he didn't?

Wallace felt an overwhelming urge to grab one of the prisoners and throttle him until he talked. He wasn't exactly used to interrogating enemies – Covenant did everything they could to stop the UNSC taking prisoners in the first place, Elites committing suicide, Brutes going into berserker rages, and even strapping bombs onto the creatures who didn't have the dedication to kill themselves. And Insurrectionists…he'd fought them, but not for a while, and standing orders were that prisoners were to be kept isolated and untouched until a specialist ONI interrogator could arrive. Maybe they were worried that the Innie might start making sense? Those days, however, were long over.

He didn't think those rules applied here, though. The prisoners were obviously not Innies – or, if they were, they were hardly soldiers trained at resisting interrogation. They looked nervous as hell, and their eyes kept darting to the shadows of the room.

That was even more irritating – the idea that, as terrified of the Helljumpers as the prisoners were, they were even more scared of something else, something he didn't know about, and that he wasn't allowed to ask.

There was a muffled "Sir!" from the perimeter guard at the opening of one of the tunnels. He jogged over, finger on the trigger of his weapon, and let out a sigh of relief when he saw it was four human figures coming out of the darkness – Vasquez and her Marines. Plus, he noticed, somebody else, who looked equally scared. They looked tired and harassed, but otherwise fine, with the exception of PFC Jansen. A couple of Corpsmen bounded over, taking the Marine off of Private Wells' back, and carrying him over to the first aid station. Vasquez gave a nod that was as good as a salute.

"What the hell happened out there?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Something in the tunnels. Alien-"

"Covenant?" he asked, concerned. "The dropship radioed possible Covenant movement before we lost contact."

"Negative. I don't know what they were, but they weren't Covenant. Or Flood either," she added, before he could jump to an even worse conclusion.

Wallace sighed again, this time in irritation. "You'll need to brief me on this, if it's enough to put a Helljumper down." He glance at the stranger, staring wide-eyed at the assembled Helljumpers. "And who's he?"

"He's a technician. UNSC. They all are. As far as they know, this place belongs to ONI."

Wallace mulled that over. Did it really change anything? Probably not, but it gave him another reason not to take down the dartboard in the ship's recreation room – the one with the ONI insignia pinned to it.

"Does he know anything about these alien things?"

"I don't think so, sir," she said.

"Then get him with the rest of the prisoners. If ONI wants to debrief them, then who are we to question orders?"

Vasquez nodded at the man, and then jerked her head to the gaggle of subdued prisoners. Wallace frowned – a few of the prisoners seemed to recognise the man, and not in a good way. As he moved towards them, a couple of them drew back. He paused.

Vasquez jabbed him with her rifle. "Come on-"

The movement was fast, faster than the time it took for Wallace to raise his weapon and fire off a shot which hit the wall behind the man. In one fluid motion, faster than anybody Wallace had ever seen, he'd side-stepped, grabbed Vasquez's rifle arm, put another around her neck, kicked out the back of her knees, and drawn her sidearm, pressing it against her head. He looked at Wallace, transformed – his cringing was replaced with a confident rigidness, his astonishment was turned into a cool, clinical and analytical look as he surveyed the room full of ODSTs packing enough firepower to drop him and the rest of the prisoners, all trained on him.

"I can assure you," he said to the room at large, "that if you try to shoot me again I will kill young Amanda here. I may not be able to strangle her, but a 12.7mm SAP-HE round will probably puncture more than just helmet. Oh, and don't struggle, my dear," he said to Vasquez, "because you are nowhere near strong enough to overpower me."

He looked over at Wallace. "Now, you said something about a dropship?"

The doors didn't shake from sudden impacts. They weren't gently peeled off their hinges, either. They were nowhere near that large or heavy enough to warrant such brute force. Andrew simply held up his ONI-provided chatter to a retinal/fingerprint/voice recognition scanner, let it remotely interface with the security system, and waited until he heard a dull clunk. He pushed the doors open and stepped across the threshold, titanium boots clacking against the tiled floor.

He was almost disappointed by how easy this had been. Quite an anticlimax – after all he had heard, after all he'd done, he'd expected more of a…well, challenge.

The doors clicked shut behind him, and he let them. They were designed to keep people out, not in. A simply kick would suffice if need be, and until then he was fine with leaving it intact. More to the point, he looked around the darkened room, assessing the state of things.

They left much to be desired. Andrew had seen the inside of many laboratories in his career – the labs of his youth, where Doctor Halsey had injected her SPARTAN-II "candidates" with vaccinations, growth hormones, and other preparations for their "graduation". The surgical suites used to augment the young Spartans, where half of his friends had died or been horrifically crippled. The laboratories where technicians had developed and manufactured the MJOLNIR Powered Assault Armour that he wore, where theyw ere tested, and where they were occasionally repaired after a strenuous mission. And, since being attached to VORAUSSICHT, there had been the many different labs he'd been involved in securing, where determined young men and women had done unthinkable things in the name of the human race's survival.

This one was different. Much different.

For one thing, it didn't seem to contain many testing stations. There was a dozen or so holographic displays along the wide end of the room, many of them shattered beyond repair, the rest heavily damaged. A pity – not that he needed them, since his suit could project any relevant data he needed. But it would have been convenient. He'd have to get Laura down here after she secured the building's server, and see if she could rig something together.

The rest of the room consisted of work stations, though not, apparently, for practical testing – most of them were computer work terminals. Some personal effects remained, scattered – a holo-still of a woman and child, somebody's family. A spilt ceramic cup of coffee. Digital-pens left where they'd been put or thrown down. A few stacks of paper were scattered at the other end of the room – he knelt, picking one up, reading a printoff of thermal variations in temperature over a thirty day period, complete with graphs and a detailed spectroscopic analysis of atmosphere. He looked at another one – an internal memo, reminding personnel that personal effects could be collected from sorting bay seven, delivered by the UNSC Fenris Wolf.

The revelation didn't surprise him. He'd suspected it, and he also suspected that the Lieutenant Commander had too. He also didn't care – whatever was happening here, it was not approved by ONI, whatever its own staff might thing, and was therefore filed under the category of "shut it down now."

He shuffled the papers together, using a holo-still display pad as a paperweight to keep them together, set down on the desk. ONI would have plenty to pour over, one they rarely got. In fact, as surprised as he had been at the lack of resistance so far, he was more surprised that the facility's nexus, the place where it was controlled from, had been simply abandoned. Even under standard ONI operating procedure, it should have been destroyed in the event of the potential compromise or capture of it by a hostile force. That would have extended to Insurrectionists too. And the cups, the stills, the paper, it was all too…convenient.

It's a fallacy that Spartan's have super-human intelligence. They have eidetic long- and short-term memories, process thoughts faster and more efficiently, and can extrapolate conclusions from less data than most need. But really, there's only so much that a faster neural conduction rate can do – at a fundamental level, Spartans can still make mistakes – misjudge an enemy's next action, fail to account for some variable, or dismiss a seemingly irrelevant detail. They are, after all, still human, despite what ONI propaganda says.

It was for that reason that Andrew cursed himself as he dropped to his knees, the armour he was wearing suddenly becoming heavy and cumbersome, unable to resist the suddenly increased pull of gravity, the unseen threat that he had missed. He pressed an arm to the ground, struggling to stay upright, to try to stand – if he could get to his feet, keep his balance, get to the doors before he blacked out from the pressure, maybe-

"Hello, Andrew. It has been a long time since our last meeting, has it not? Please, have a seat. I'm sure we have much to discuss…"