Chapter 30: The Gun Pointed at the Head of the Universe

2552, September 21st, Halo's Control Centre

"Let me get this straight," Holland began, desperately trying to process it all. "This ring is designed to kill all life in the galaxy. These creatures, the Flood, intend to consume all life in the galaxy. So unless we destroy Halo before its either activated or the damn zombie monsters running around get off of it, we're all pretty much dead."

"That seems to be the gist of it, Colonel," The Master Chief concurred. "The longer we wait the higher the chance of either of these two things happening becomes. We need to get moving on this now."

Colonel Holland could only nod his head at the full extent of the task ahead of them. He rubbed his chin and looked about the hallway where everyone, including the present Normandy personnel, were assembled. Holland had been a bit surprised to see both the missing Master Chief and Commander Shepard here of all places, walking out of Halo's control room no less. He was quick to put his puzzlement over the sight aside though as he listened their story and learned of their dire situation.

Cortana had locked down the Control Room and several Army Engineers were already trying to seal it off. Not that it would do much good against The Monitor, he could just teleport inside. At least the Covenant wouldn't be able to get back in and accidentally activate the 'kill everything' switch as Shepard had put it.

"I don't suppose the Normandy has enough firepower to do the job," Holland asked as he looked to the said Commander.

"We've killed a Reaper with its predecessor," Shepard admitted. "But I don't think we got enough juice to punch through a ringworld, no."

Colonel Holland sighed dejectedly. He supposed that the answer wouldn't be that simple, but then again this wasn't a simple problem.

"Well then how do we blow this popsicle stand of doom?" Sergeant Buck asked out of frustration. "Best explosives we got are rockets and grenades at this point, I don't think that's gonna be enough."

"What we need is the biggest damn bomb we can get," Sergeant Johnson suggested. "One with a very long and very slow burning fuse, if at all possible. Unless of course, we actually want to be here when it goes, but I doubt that."

"The Autumn is the answer, gentlemen," Cortana quickly spoke over the assembled group. "If its fusion reactors are still functional we can turn it into that very bomb. The reactors going critical would trigger a massively powerful and devastating blast that would cut through several primary systems for Halo. I'll admit that such a plan is somewhat... risky, but it is probably our best option."

Considering how much time Cortana had spent inside the Autumn's computer system, everyone was inclined to trust her judgement on the matter. Holland nodded in response to Cortana's proposal. However, he did have to note on little hitch.

"All UNSC ships have several fail safes to keep any onboard fusion reactor from going critical," he noted aloud. "There's only one person on the ship who would have access to the codes we'd need to disengage them."

"Captain Keyes," The Master Chief quickly deduced. "And we don't even know where he is."

"I'm already scouring the Covenant Battlenet," Cortana assured them. "Well, what's left of it anyway. With any luck I can pick up on his trail. If that doesn't work, I can try homing in on the Captain's Neural Lace. It's probably best I scan the Battlenet regardless though, we need to keep an eye on their movements."

Blowing up Halo was only one half of the plan, however. They had another issue to deal with entirely, one that Johnson had already brought up moments ago and Kasumi felt like elaborating on.

"So, does anyone have a handle on how we get off this death trap before it goes boom?" The hooded woman asked. "Because, I don't think we can all fit in the Normandy."

"We could carry some of the remaining UNSC forces," Shepard offered. "But the Normandy's life support systems weren't built to accommodate a small army. We'll need a bigger ship."

"And the Covenant are the only other group who have said bigger ships," Buck noted. "Yeah, something tells me they won't be interested in sharing."

"They won't like the idea of us blowing up their sacred ring either," Tali added.

There was no point in dancing around the issue any longer. They had all known that this scenario would be forced upon them at some point. They needed to hijack a Covenant ship if they wanted to get everyone off Halo before it exploded.

"It won't be easy taking one of their ships," Garrus plainly stated. "I imagine most of them are staying the hell away from Halo right now. Even the Covenant wouldn't be stupid enough to risk the Flood getting off this ring."

"No, but there may be one ship that doesn't have a choice," Miranda reminded him. "The Truth and Reconciliation, with any luck it's still too damaged to head into orbit. We'd have to fix it of course, but it's probably our best chance to take one of their ships."

"We'll put that down as a possible target," Holland informed her, before turning to the Master Chief. "Cortana, while you're looking for the Captain, see if you can find any other potential ships we could try hijacking. We need to keep our options open."

"Will do, sir," Cortana assured him through the radio.

Before the discussion could continue further, however, the sound of a large explosion could be heard from outside. It was followed by gunfire and the distinctive clamour of a Shade Plasma turret. The group rushed back to the entrance of the command centre and out into the frozen canyon beyond.

Immediately, they spotted several Army Troopers firing up into the sky with whatever they had. The captured Covenant Shade Turrets were blasting away into the night air, their purple bolts lighting up the darkness. As they watched the scene unfold, green plasma blasts rained down from on high. None of them hit anyone, but they certainly caused everyone to duck their heads low. The familiar screech of a Covenant aircraft could be heard moments later.

"Seems like the Covies want their Control Room back," Zaeed noted as he stared up into the night sky.

Colonel Holland grabbed a soldier as he rushed by, intending to get a proper sitrep.

"Banshees?" He asked the trooper.

"Afraid so, sir," the soldier replied. "They just came out of nowhere and started strafing the whole structure. Turrets are keeping them back though."

As Holland spoke to the soldier about the situation, the Master Chief looked to Cortana for answers.

"Is there anything on the Covenant Battlenet about this?" He asked the AI.

"Tons," Cortana answered back. "It seems these Banshees are just an advance force. Covenant forces are assaulting the entire area. According to what I'm seeing here, they've been ordered to clear the canyons out of any traces of the Flood and then secure the Control Centre. They've sent pretty much everything they can spare at this location. They're not leaving anything to chance."

"Oh that's a brilliant plan," Garrus grumbled. "Just throw meat at the enemy that can use your dead soldiers against you."

"Something tells me they know that, Garrus," Shepard was quick to postulate. "The problem is they don't have any other options in their mind. Maybe they're hoping to do what we thought were going to do, activate Halo's defences and kill the Flood."

Another series of plasma bolts echoed through the air. The Shade turrets answered the banshees back, opening up with everything they had. There was an explosion moments later and a cry of cheering from the army troopers. The group then watched as the burning wreckage of one banshee fell from the sky and crashed into the canyon wall. All Holland could do was shake his head.

"If the Covenant are sending everything they have at this place then we can't hope to hold it," Holland said shaking his head. "Cortana, what are the chances of them being able to activate Halo if they get inside the Control Room again?"

"Extremely remote," the AI assured him. "I don't think they know how this place works, or that they need the Index to activate it. Precautions like that welding of the door shut would probably be a good idea though regardless."

"Then it's probably best you prepare your men to evacuate when you get the chance, Colonel," Shepard suggested. "There's no point in defending this place any longer, not when we know the truth about this ring."

Holland agreed, nodding his head at the Commander. He then turned to his nearest subordinates and began issuing new orders.

"Hold any Covenant back and prepare the troops for evac," he instructed. "I want Pelicans taking us out of this canyon on the double. Take only what we can carry. We'll try to establish a small base somewhere more secure and contact Major Silva back at Alpha to coordinate our next move."

"We'll head back to the Normandy then," Shepard added. "We can establish a line with Silva and let him know what's happening. Then we can help coordinate an attack on the Truth and Reconciliation with him, prepare an escape plan before heading to the Autumn and taking care of it."

"So long as you can fly us back to Alpha Base while you're doing that," Sergeant Buck requested. "If we're stealing a Covenant ship, then me and my team need to regroup and rearm before we try pulling that off."

"You're welcome aboard," Shepard assured him. "You and Sergeant Johnson, we're going to need your help after all. I'll get Joker on the horn and have him send a shuttle down to pick us up."

However, as Shepard prepared to make the call, Cortana suddenly spoke up again.

"Wait, we need to buy ourselves some time," she explained to everyone. "The Monitor is still out there and he won't give up trying to activate Halo. Even without the Index, he knows this ring better than any of us. There may be ways that he can force Halo to fire."

"Well, maybe we can explain to him we got a better idea," Kasumi suggested. "I mean, he's an AI, they're smart. He has to see that there is a better way to stop the Flood then by destroying all life in the Galaxy."

"You didn't spend hours having that flying eyeball lead around by the nose through undead monsters," Miranda growled. "He's insane and completely unreasonable. And you heard him before. He's decided we're an obstacle to achieving his endgame. He'll sooner shoot us on sight next we see him."

Guilty Spark had been pretty clear in his statement about that, most certainly. However, Shepard wanted to be sure he couldn't be reasoned with. He was a machine, they governed on logic. Even if he was insane, there had to be some way they could get through to him. There were only two people right now that could tell him that answer.

"Tali, Cortana, you're experts on AI in one way or another," he started. "What exactly is Guilty Spark's problem? Can we explain the situation to him? He's a smart AI, they're adaptable, right?"

"In normal circumstances, yes," Tali explained coolly. "However, he's long since passed the estimated seven year lifespan. Personally, I'm amazed he's even functional. His mind should've started snapping into pieces from all the data he's absorbed over the years he's had to think to himself. His isolation here might have helped keep him together, but his programming puts him at odds with us."

"What do you mean?" Shepard asked.

Tali looked to the Master Chief, hoping for Cortana to explain further.

"Every Smart AI is capable of thinking outside their assigned programming," she began. "I'm primarily designed for infiltration for example. However, that gives me access to a variety of systems that I can use to my advantage. I've learnt how to decipher alien languages, consider battle tactics, fly spaceships, all from my experiences with using more core functions. It helps me adapt to any given situation. Guilty Spark, as he is called, seems to have one major roadblock to his ability to adapt, his protocol."

"Think of EDI's mental locks, but different," Tali continued. "All Guilty Spark knows is his protocol, his programming. The Forerunners must've built it into his Personality Matrix, a way of keeping him from ever trying anything that could put his mission at risk. Like leaving Halo or using the Index himself and activating the ring. It's all he knows at this point, it orders his actions. Any adaptation must conform to total completion of his assigned programming. If Protocol tells him he has to activate Halo to stop a Flood outbreak he will follow it. And he'll eliminate anything or anyone that could impede his protocol, no matter the consequences."

"And as the keeper of Halo," Cortana added dutifully "I imagine another of his assigned tasks is to make sure nothing happens to it. Telling him about how we're going to blow up his home is only going to piss him off more."

Shepard could only shake his head at the information sadly.

"I guess I've been with synthetics that aren't murder happy for so long that finding one that is takes me by surprise," he stated. "Alright, Cortana, how do we keep Spark from lighting this ring up?"

"The machinery in these canyons are part of Halo's primary firing mechanism," the AI explained readily. "Not too surprising given the proximity to the Control Centre. Among the key components are three Phase Pulse Generators. They amplify Halo's signal and allow it to travel deep into space. The power levels for them are enormous. I can't even begin to calculate the pulse's total range."

"Guilty Spark rattled off a few numbers as I recall," Master Chief noted. "Twenty-five thousand light-years he said."

Cortana cleared her throat in Chief's ear for his interruption. The Spartan just threw up his hands slightly and let the AI continue.

"All we need to do is find a way to either destroy or disable those generators," she stated. "The Monitor will then need to repair them before he can even consider using Halo. That should buy us some time."

"And it will keep the Covenant from doing the same just in case they stumble on a way to do it first," Colonel Holland considered. "Good thinking. Master Chief, Cortana, I want you two on this while we prepare to pull out. Now I know you must be exhausted, Chief, but if this Monitor is hell bent on activating this ring-"

"There's no need to worry about that, sir," The Spartan assured him. "We'll get the job done here and work on finding Captain Keyes when we're finished."

Holland nodded at the Master Chief and walked away to see to his men. As he did, Shepard walked up to the Spartan, taking the Colonel's previous spot.

"Maybe I should go with you," he suggested. "With both the Covenant and the Flood out there you could use the extra backup."

"Actually, sir, I think it would better if I went on alone," Chief replied. "The Normandy needs its Commander back and your team needs you more than me."

"Well, I can send someone with you," Shepard offered instead. "Garrus or Kasumi maybe, you shouldn't do this alone."

Master Chief looked out on the frozen canyon before him for a moment, seemingly contemplating. He then turned back, his posture firm and his tone unchanged.

"To be honest, Commander," The Spartan insisted. "It'll be easier for me to move around the Canyons alone. I can bypass the firefights easier without a large squad and I can get to the Pulse Generators faster. Besides, we'll need you ready to move when Cortana locates Captain Keyes."

Shepard looked like he was about to argue, but he backed down. He could see the reason behind the Spartan's explanation. At that moment, though, Cortana located the first Pulse Generator and highlighted the waypoint on Chief's HUD. It led the Spartan's eyes to look above him, although his view was blocked by the giant tower on the top of the pyramid.

"It's pretty high up on the canyon wall, Chief," Cortana informed him. "We're going to need an aircraft."

"Well if you won't let us come with," Shepard astutely noted. "At least let us give you a ride to start you out."

The shuttle didn't take long to reach them, nor did it take long to get to the way point. Through the snow-laden sky, Chief could see the small platform sticking out of the canyon wall. There was an unoccupied banshee parked on the platform and a door leading into the rock behind a small blast shield. The shuttle tried its best to keep steady as the Spartan leaned out to get a better look at the area.

"The Covenant has likely set up a small observation post in preparation for the assault," Cortana warned. "They probably don't even realise what they're unintentionally guarding."

"How long before a proper Covenant advance force is here exactly?" Chief asked her.

"A few minutes actually. Several squads are working their way through the machinery corridors like we did when we first came here," she elaborated. "They've encountered resistance from the Flood, but some have broken through. I'm more worried about the larger force coming in on dropships. I estimate at least one wraith with a platoon strength infantry unit. More than likely they'll try to set up forward position at the foot of the pyramid and try to work their way up to Holland's people at the top levels."

They'd see about dealing with that if they could before they left, Holland needed more time to get his men out of there after all. For now, Chief just hoped the observation crew on the platform weren't too much of a problem to deal with.

"We'll drop you off on the platform and wait for you outside," Shepard informed the Spartan as they neared the artificial ledge. "We can help get you down to the rock bridge below after you're done and let you move on to the next canyon. Then we'll head back to the Normandy and wait for your signal to move in on Keyes' position when you find him."

Shepard also handed the Spartan a spare pistol, a Phalanx with a disruptor round modification activated on it.

"It should help with any Elites you find," he suggested.

"Thanks," Chief replied as he took the weapon. "It never hurts to have a backup weapon."

As they neared the platform for the drop off, Chief could see three Covenant soldiers moving out into the open. One was an elite, the other two were grunts, one of which was armed with a fuel rod cannon. As they came close, the Covenant opened fire on the shuttle. Chief ducked away from the door as the plasma fire cut through the air. As the Spartan prepared his rifle, Zaeed approached the shuttle's door himself.

"After wading through hordes of undead monsters, some living targets sound like a breath of fresh air," he stated as he took aim with his sniper rifle. "Here's lead in your eyes, you bastards!"

Zaeed fired a single shot that took out one of the grunts. In response, the other grunt aimed his weapon up at the shuttle, a fuel rod cannon. He fired it, forcing the shuttle to jerk away from the ball of green burning death. As Zaeed grabbed onto the side of the shuttle's door to keep balance with one hand, he kept firing with the other down at the Covenant.

"You call that shooting?" He called down at them. "My great-granny was ten times the shot any of you worthless shits were!"

Chief joined Zaeed in opening fire on the Covenant below. Their rounds raked the platform incessantly, forcing the heavily armed grunt to try to flee. Unfortunately for him, he caught a bullet to the head and fell to the floor. His Cannon went off as it clattered to the ground, shooting a blast at his elite commander. The Covenant Officer ducked clear of the shot, but the blast radius was able to sufficiently damage his shields.

Chief noted they were close enough to the platform and decided to make a jump for it. He leapt from the rocking shuttle and towards the artificial outcropping. His foot slammed into the face of the elite, knocking him once more to the floor. The elite retaliated, opening fire on the Spartan as he rushed for cover.

Luckily for the Master Chief, Shepard shuttle had not yet forsaken him. Zaeed had been joined by Miranda and Shepard, firing down on the Covie to provide the Spartan with some cover. Chief quickly used the opportunity to rush back out when the elite's back was turned. He opened fire, blasting out the alien's knee caps, before delivering a powerful kick that knocked the elite clear off the side of the platform.

With the guard taken care of, Chief entered the door that was embedded in the canyon wall. He rushed through the corridor as fast as he was able and entered out into a small octangular room. At its center, past an inner wall, was a bright blue glow. The Master Chief walked past the wall to reveal a pyramid-like object radiantly shining in his face. It was almost blinding to look at, but his visor filtered out much of the glare.

"Cortana, is this the pulse generator?" He asked.

"Scans say it is," she replied. "The center at the core is the signal amplifier. That's what we need to shut down. We just need to interrupt its energy stream."

"Any ideas on how we do that?" He asked the AI.

"Yes," she admitted. "But you may not like it."

Deciding to just grin and bear whatever Cortana had in mind, Chief just shrugged his shoulders and awaited the AI's full answer. Truth be told, he didn't really like it at all.

"I've adjusted your shield to deliver a small EMP blast," she informed him. "It should be enough to neutralize the generator. All you need to do is walk close to the beam. It will take awhile for your shields to recharge after the blast, however."

"Well," The Master Chief sighed. "If it's the fastest way we can get this done..."

Without much in the way of hesitation, Chief entered the generator's beam's proximity. He felt his shields suddenly explode outward in a burst of energy and heard the distinctive sound of the generator losing power. The beam dimmed sharply, no longer holding the same radiance as before.

"It worked," Cortana declared. "Scans say the generator's central core is offline. There are two more we need to neutralize."

Chief turned, ready to get going and get started on just that. However, as he neared the door, he was greeted with a very unpleasant surprise. The passage opened and a small flight of sentinels entered the room. His shields still powering back up, Chief rushed to find cover as the Sentinels opened fire with their lasers.

"Where the hell did they come from?" He asked as he huddled behind what little protection he could find nearby.

"The Monitor must've detected what we did and teleported the sentinels to discover the reason behind the generator's disruption," Cortana reasoned. "He may be on to us now."

"Doesn't change the mission," the Spartan said adamantly. "Just means he can watch as we break his stuff."

Chief powered up his plasma pistol and let it fired at one of the sentinels. The shot decimated the sentinel with ease, its metal husk falling to the ground. Cortana had managed to boost power back to the Spartan's shields and they were now fully recharged. That wouldn't mean much against the sentinels' lasers though, so he'd have to be quick.

A laser cut at the ground close to the Spartan, forcing him to lean out of its path. He fired another overcharge straight into the sentinel's stomach as he ran under. As the now junked machine fell to the ground, another that was still operation aimed directly for the Spartan's head. Chief pulled out his assault rifle and peppered the front of the machine, causing it to lose tracking. One of the shots cracked the sentinel's camera and it violently jerked its head towards another of its machine brethren. The shot cut down the second machine and gave Chief the opening he needed to run for the door.

Chief rushed through towards the corridor, but as the doors shut behind him, he tossed a single plasma grenade back into the room. He then fired his rifle at it, the spray hitting the small projectile as it flew through the air. The plasma airburst tore apart the nearby flying robots, their metal parts falling to the floor in a heap.

The Master Chief wasted no time in leaving the generator room behind, lest there were more sentinels teleporting in. He raced outside once more and towards the idle banshee. Hopping inside the cockpit and seizing the controls, he made a beeline for the rock bridge below.

As they flew closer to the bridge, more Covenant soldiers rushed out of the door nearby to greet them. Chief opened fire on them as they exited, letting the Banshee's plasma bolts rip them apart. Shepard's shuttle was still close by as well, it's passengers providing whatever fire they could muster. Chief appreciated their actions, for however brief they would last.

As he reached the bridge, Chief abandoned the banshee. He ejected himself from the cockpit, bailing out just inches above the bridge itself. He let the craft crash into a grunt armed with a Fuel Rod Cannon and slam into the canyon wall. His path clear once more, Chief ran through the door way that would lead him out of the canyon and onto his next objective.

"I'm detecting a lot of Covenant movement in the next series of hallways," Cortana warned. "Not to mention a few scattered reports about the Flood as well. Don't be surprised if we end up running into some firefights as we move through the area. Hopefully they'll be too distracted killing each other to bother us."

"At the very least they'll thin each other out," the Master Chief reckoned. "Whatever makes our job easier, I guess."

"Speaking of which, there's still time to change your mind about doing this solo, by the way," Cortana informed him. "I know you can more than handle this situation alone, but..."

But the Spartan remained steadfast in his resolve, shaking his head at the suggestion.

"Trust me on this, Cortana," Chief assured her coolly. "Right now, they're better off in the air than with me. Let's just focus on breaking Guilty Spark's Pulse Generators for now. Then we find Keyes and we get as far away from this ring as possible."

"Well, I can't argue with that last statement at least," Cortana concurred. "Hell, if the Covenant were smart they'd be doing that last thing right now instead of this attack. You'd think at least a few of them would realise staying here is a bad idea at this point."

Zek sat in his shipmaster's chair, which he had asked the crew to get out of storage. He had always preferred a nice command chair to standing around, but the military doctrine of the Covenant forbade it. Etiquette didn't matter now though, not when they were about to do so much worse.

"I still think it would probably be better to wait for them to give an order to head down to Halo," Retz suggested. "We can get past the main formation and simply slipspace jump when we're clear."

"Too risky," Zek informed him. "They won't let any ship get close to Halo in a situation like this. They'll cram us into transports and send us all down, keep our ship locked in orbit to maintain a blockade. They can't risk the little parasites getting past them."

"They can't risk us getting past them either," Varvok reminded him. "The blockade is keeping us prisoner as well after all."

"Have a little faith, Four Eyes," Zek grinned. "I'm not stupid enough to think we can easily cruise out of here. I have a plan. So long as those favours Retz called in pan out."

Zek's second mate quickly looked over the fleet reports on the holoscreen in front of him. He brought up a map of the current positions of all the ships in the fleet. Retz's favour had managed to get them positioned closer the ring itself and among some of the more smaller ships in the armada.

There were a few complications of course, a few scattered battlecruisers nearby for one. That included the Supreme Commander's flagship, The Seeker of Truth, which had taken position near the centre of the fleet. It was a few hundred miles away from them on the positioning map, still close enough to pose a problem though.

"At least they can't risk firing on us without hitting some of their other ships," Varvok noted. "They've packed themselves so close after all."

"I'm not counting on them to refrain from blowing each other up," Zek informed his batarian comrade before turning to his first mate. "Retz, how have the modifications to the plasma torpedoes come along?"

"Everything seems to be up to your specifications," he assured Zek.

"And our special surprises?" Zek asked next.

"Stored and ready," Retz dutifully answered. "The men are just waiting for the signal to use them."

Zek just nodded with a steely-eyed grin.

"Then it's time we sail on out of this doomed little venture," he declared. "Helmsman! Take us out of formation and into open space. Follow the route and go slow. Try not to rouse suspicion as long as possible."

The Fallen Serpent moved out of formation from the rest of the other ships in the fleet. The Corvettes didn't seem to take notice, nor did the fighters. To them, it probably just looked like they were repositioning or avoiding a potential collision. At least, that's what they assumed at first. When they started moving out of their assigned sector though, more eyes came upon them.

"Scanners report a flight of Seraphs are eyeing us, sir," Retz warned. "Coming up along port side."

"They're just nosy, hold fire," Zek cautioned. "They're not the real threat. Wait for their suspicions to work up the chain of command. We need to buy time to get into position."

The rogue corvette kept moving through the fleet, slowly but surely going beyond their assigned zone. More Seraphs soon joined the flight that had first spotted them. It was then the real questions started. A small beeping light flashed on the console.

"We're being hailed by the fighters," Varvok warned.

"Don't answer them," Zek ordered. "They can't fire on us unless they get the order to. No need to get jumpy now."

However, the fighters soon called for someone with more authority than them.

"Another hail," Retz reported. "A battlecruiser shipmaster this time, he wants to know why we're out of our zone."

"Respond only with static," Zek ordered. "Varvok, you best get out of sight. We won't be able to hold this charade if you're spotted on the bridge with us."

Varvok nodded and moved away from the main bridge console. The Fallen Serpent kept moving though, ignoring the constant hails and requests for responses. They were nearing the outer sector now, where more corvettes awaited them. They had gotten past the first batch of battlecruisers with little trouble, but Zek knew he'd have to respond with something to get further.

"I'm reporting there is a problem with our communications system and that our navigation is offline," Retz informed Zek.

"Good," Zek replied smiling. "All according to the plan."

"Should we try activating stealth, slip by the rest?" Retz asked cautiously. "We're not too far from the outer perimeter of the blockade."

"They'll realise something is up the second we do," Zek informed him. "Besides, we'll need to drop it to enter slipspace. They'll ready every gun they have to shoot us down the second it happens. Remember, we need to give them reason not to shoot. Or at least refrain from making a kill shot."

As their ship entered the new sector, a battlecruiser moved into position above them while a second cruiser moved to their left flank. They were certainly suspicious about their intentions now. Zek gripped his seat's arm rests, his eyes darting to the screens about him.

"Think they'll fire?" Retz asked.

"No, but they're waiting for the order," Zek presumed. "They'll probably wondering if we've been compromised by the Flood, stupid, damaged or trying to ditch them."

It was then that the message light beeped loudly. Retz quickly looked at the signal's origin.

"I think they worked up the command chain faster than we thought," he warned Zek. "We got Supreme Commander 'Vadamee's attention now."

Zek just laughed lightly at that. While it was a bit of a hitch, he couldn't really say he was that disappointed. In fact, in the back of his mind, he had hoped it would happen. There was no use of keeping the Commander waiting. He'd shoot them down if they didn't answer.

"Put the Head Asshole in Charge on then," Zek ordered, clapping his fingertips together. "It would be rude of us not to at least explain ourselves first."

Retz obeyed and activated the screen. In moments, Thel 'Vadamee's face appeared in front of Zek, alongside that of the Prophet of Empathy's slightly off in the background. Zek maintained a rather aloof position in his chair, a posture that radiated a lack of concern and interest.

"Fallen Serpent you are out of formation," Thel began. "Readings show your navigation is fully functional and you are increasing power to shields. Explain yourself, Zek."

"I guess I'm just bored of looking at the big ass ring with the bright red gas giant behind it," Zek replied rather casually. "I figured we'd pop out for a bit, check around some of the other planets in the system maybe. Probably go get some extra snacks for the fleet. You want anything, Supreme Commander? They got some good Colo meat nearby, real fresh."

'Vadamee just groaned inwardly and shook his head.

"I have no time for your jokes, Pirate," he growled. "We are in the middle of a crisis. Return to your assigned sector."

But Zek just stretched out his shoulders and reached for a bottle of Ichor near his chair.

"Yeah, I'm gonna have to decline on that," he stated rather aloofly as he opened the bottle. "I'm just not really feeling this whole blockade thing right now. You seem to have it more or less covered anyway. I don't think you need me to keep the ugly undead monsters from getting off of Halo to be honest."

"I'm giving you an order," 'Vadamee stated, his voice growing even more agitated. "You are to return to your sector... now."

"How about later?" Zek requested uncaringly. "Say around... the twelfth of never? I'll be more inclined to listen to your little 'orders' then."

If Thel 'Vadamee wasn't enraged before, he was now. Growling in anger, he slammed his fist down on his console.

"I am the Supreme Commander, how dare you test me with this flagrant insubordination!" He bellowed.

"And how dare you, Supreme Commander, assume to give me orders," Zek responded, finally returning to an upright position in his chair. "Especially when you have violated the terms of the contract I signed in regards to my cooperation with the Covenant!"

Thel seemed taken aback by the accusation, offended even.

"I have violated no terms," he denied vehemently.

"I agreed to serve your cause so long as I maintained command over my men," Zek replied ardently. "Those were my terms in exchange for my surrender. You violated that stipulation the second you allowed that long necked idiot behind you to send my men to die like animals against those fucking parasites you unleashed!"

Thel slowly turned to Empathy, his eyes meeting the Prophet's. For his part, Empathy showed no remorse and seemed to just shrug at the accusation.

"The Pirate challenged our authority, MY authority, to be precise." He explained rather callously. "He and his degenerate crew needed to be taught a lesson in who his betters are and what his worth is."

It was stunning to see, 'Vadamee hadn't known. He had been as duped as the rest of them. All Zek could do was laugh at the revelation.

"And I thought you were in charge of this fleet, Supreme Commander," he chuckled. "It seems your bug-eyed little companion isn't aware of that. And to think, your people nearly wiped them out several millennia ago, now they're just pulling your strings. Priceless."

Thel shook his head at Empathy.

"Idiot," he grumbled at him before turning back to Zek. "This is a matter we shall handle later, Zek. Right now, return to your sector."

"No," Zek refused. "The fact you weren't aware doesn't change anything. My men are still dead because of those monsters you set free. You honestly think this stupid ring is gonna save us? Even now, after all the shit that's gone down? It's not your salvation; it's a fucking doomsday box! And you idiots just broke the fucking seal! If you think I'm going to let my crew continue to pay for your bullshit religious dogma, then you're sorely mistaken."

Empathy finally approached the screen, burning fury in his eyes.

"You dare speak such blasphemies of our lords' creation?" He screeched. "I'll have your worthless hide torn from your still living body and-"

"SHUT UP YOU BUG-EYED LONG-NECKED SACK OF SHIT!" Zek screamed at the Prophet, his face contorting into a viciously angered visage. "I'M TALKING NOW! I'M TALKING AND YOU'RE LISTENING!"

Empathy immediately backed away from the screen, the rage replaced by a look of a shock at the kig-yar's outburst. Zek continued onwards, intending not to be interrupted again.

"I've gave up my freedom so my men wouldn't have to give up their lives," he informed Thel, his composure slightly returning. "This was never my cause. Yet I felt at least if my men died, they'd still be dying for me and not your extinct Forerunners. Now I realise that I was lying to myself. Allowing you to control me meant you controlled them."

Thel look unmoved by the speech, but Zek continued on, not caring what he thought.

"You stole our freedom, destroyed our way of life, bleed us dry with every battle and every firefight," Zek accused. "I didn't appreciate what we had before, that's why it was so easy to sign away. Well now I want it back. Keep your ring, keep your cause, I don't care. You can all die trying to claw to your precious salvation in the clouds or wherever you think it is. Me, I don't need any of that shit. So I'm leaving, we're leaving and you can't stop us."

"I can't allow that," Thel steadfastly informed him. "Your attempted desertion undermines my command and the importance of this mission. This is now bigger than the Journey, Zek. You must see that. The parasite is too great a danger for any of us to simply walk away. Even if you escape us, how long do you think it would take for the Flood to find you?"

"Given it was your incompetent search for holy garbage that unleashed them, forgive me if I don't have much confidence in your ability to stop them," Zek spitefully replied. "You could resolve this issue by burning that fucking ring to glass. But we both know that won't happen, not with that little shit stain in the hover chair leering over your shoulder. The fact is, I don't have confidence in your ability to command and I don't trust any of you bastards anymore. At least if I leave my crew has a chance. Of all the lost causes in the universe, this one couldn't find its way out of a Baby Chorka's ass"

Empathy worked up the courage to float back up to the screen himself. He was desperate to put his own words into the conversation. His ego would not allow him to stay silent.

"Your actions have marked you and your crew, deserter," he gravely warned. "For this treachery, we shall burn your pathetic ship from the skies. You shall pay dearly for your sedition."

"You know, I'm aware of those words," Zek jokingly replied, chuckling under his throat. "Pay and treachery, I know what those mean. But when you speak them, all I hear is a stream of turds falling from your mouth. It's a most unpleasant sound."

"Insolent bird," the Prophet growled.

"I'm a pirate, as you all so eagerly inform me every day," Zek answered back rather smugly. "It's what I do. And you may want to rethink that idea about blowing us out of the sky. I have all of Varvok's men aboard my ship. They weren't interested in my little plan so I had to lock them in the brig. Blow me up, you kill them. How is it going to look to our allies in the Hegemony when you try to explain to them why you didn't try to save their entire expeditionary force? You may not care about their lives, but you do care about keeping up appearances to their Government at least. You're welcome to try and save them though. In fact, I relish the challenge. Goodbye, Supreme Commander."

Retz cut the feed to the Supreme Commander's ship. When he did, Varvok walked back into frame.

"You think they bought it?" The batarian asked.

"For now anyway," Zek warily answered. "Even after your last meeting with them, they probably won't suspect you of abandoning the cause just yet. They probably think you're easier to control, that they crushed your spirit or some shit. They're arrogant like that. It should buy us a little time before they figure it out at least. For now, let's power up weapons and get ready. We're in for a fight."

Thel stared furiously at his command screens, now all focused on the Fallen Serpent's position within the fleet. It was still heading towards the edge of their holding pattern, where the mass of assembled ships gave way to open space. The only thing that endangered taking his attention off of it all, were the annoying grumblings of the Prophet of Empathy. As soon as Zek had hung up, he had began to float about the command platform, flailing his arms and neck incessantly.

"This is an outrage," he screeched. "A total outrage! Heresy, I say! Heresy of the highest order! I want them dead! I want them all dead and strung up by their intestines for this insult! Worthless backstabbing blaspheming pirates! Destroying them now takes precedent over all things! I order you to deal with this at once 'Vadamee!"

"We wouldn't have to deal with it if you had kept your pride in check," Thel shouted back at the screaming little fool. "Zek was complacent as long as he felt he had control! Did you honestly think he'd simply let the deaths of his men go unanswered?"

"You did not let that stop you from putting Varvok in his place," Empathy defiantly stated.

"I shifted the majority of the responsibility to where it belonged, his Commanding Officer," Thel argued, angrily turning to the Prophet. "You decided to confirm Zek's insubordination as justified. And now, I have an entire Corvette of kig-yar attempting to desert their posts and potentially holding allied soldiers hostage. We had him under control and then you yanked the leash so hard it made him decide to bite us. Excellent work, your Eminence."

Thel returned to his monitors as he finished. He fully expected Empathy to shout back in anger, to unleash another ridiculous tirade against him for chewing him out. At this point he didn't really care. He was getting sick of the Prophet's interference in this mission. Truthfully, he did hear what sounded like Empathy about to blow his top, but holding his breath in. Then, suddenly, there was a long prolonged exhale and Empathy stopped his ranting.

"We can assign blame later," he stated exhaustedly, rubbing the sides of his head. "Right now, we need to prevent them from leaving. They cannot be allowed to disobey the will of the Covenant so brazenly."

"I have no intention of letting them," Thel assured him. "No one, warrior or pirate, undermines my authority. But until we know for sure the status of Varvok and the batarians, we must handle this delicately."

Thel opened a channel to all craft in the area surrounding Zek's corvette.

"Attention, this is the Supreme Commander," he began commandingly. "The Corvette designated Fallen Serpent is attempting to abandon the fleet and our Covenant. You are ordered to prevent this desertion. Battlecruisers, move into position to block the Corvette's path, but do not open fire. All smaller ships and fighter escorts, destroy the Serpent's engines and defensive guns. Prepare boarding parties for departure on my order. Defend the honour of this fleet. Do not allow this betrayal to go unanswered."

It wasn't long before Covenant fighters turned towards the Fallen Serpent. They began peppering the corvette with sustained plasma fire. However, Zek had already presumed where the main concentration of their fire would be.

"All rear guns," he ordered. "Open fire! Rip the Seraphs apart!

Anti-Air plasma turrets opened fire on the closing Seraphs, preparing to make a run on the engines. Energy bolts traced across the void, slashing into the enemy fighters as they approached. For a normal Corvette it would be hazardous, but Zek had outfitted the Fallen Serpent with more defensive guns than the norm, as well as a proper shield where most Corvettes had none. As the Seraphs closed in on their target, the crossfire from the turrets increased. Their shields failed and their armour was torn asunder. The fighters that didn't pull out were shredded apart.

However, some of the Seraphs managed to fire on the engine thrusters and the ship shook as a result. Retz was quick to give a damage report.

"Rear shields holding, thrusters only suffered minor damage," he informed Zek. "Our gunners count twelve Seraph kills between them."

"They're only insects," Zek warned. "The Supreme Commander knows he needs to hit us hard to truly stop our escape. Fighters alone won't accomplish that. Warm up the main guns, before the other ships get in range."

The Seraphs continued to circle around the Corvette, being blown from the sky or unleashing their heavy ordinance before pulling out. In the midst of the chaos, the Covenant's smaller vessels moved into position. Corvettes, frigates and support ships all moved to intercept them while the battlecruisers moved to block their most direct route of escape. It was as expected. One frigate approached them from the front, its main weapon already arming.

"We have their gun deck targeted, sir," Retz declared.

"Fire forward guns," Zek ordered.

Two plasma blasts were launched from the Fallen Serpent. They sailed through the void and collided with the frigate's upper deck. With a huge hole now ripped in its side, it turned away from the direct attack. However, another Corvette opened fire in its stead. Their plasma blasts struck the starboard side of their ship, causing the entire vessel to rock about.

"Shields holding," Retz informed Zek. "We have plasma torpedo lock on their lower deck, close to the fuel lines. The hull is stronger there."

"Fire a concentrated pulse laser shot at the coordinates prior to the torpedo," Zek commanded. "That will take their shields down a notch."

A purple laser shot out from the Serpent. It struck the shields of the opposing ship, burning a hole through them. Following on the laser's heels was a flight of plasma torpedoes, fired from the heavy turrets. They passed through the chaos of the battle and collided with the opposing Corvette's underbelly. The enemy ship rocked upward as an explosion rippled across its underside before exiting out through roof of the Corvette. Huge Pieces of the ship flew off and debris spewed forth from the damaged ship. As it fell away, Zek pushed the Fallen Serpent forward.

However, there were more than enough ships to replace the ones that had backed away. More support ships streamed towards them, firing their own pulse lasers. They worked in tandem with the frigates and corvettes, which were launching their own plasma torpedoes. However, Zek had planned for this too.

"Quick, get the anti-torpedo deflection defences online," he ordered.

"Already done," Retz assured. "They're tracking two incoming, aimed at out engines like you expected they would."

The Anti-Plasma Torpedo Counter Guiding System was usually reserved for frigates, but Zek had managed to procure one to be installed on his own ship. The Covenant rarely faced any races with plasma torpedoes themselves anymore, what with the war with the humans. It was seen as too costly to give every ship in the fleet such counter-measures for a weapon they had complete control over. Such lack of foresight had always irked Zek.

The counter guiding system locked onto the incoming plasma torpedoes and forced them away from the ship by a hair. The close proximity of the heat alone was enough to make the shields blare. The redirection had another advantage though. With so many ships trying to take them down, they were all in danger of getting caught in the crossfire. The deadly projectiles instead collided with another of the Covenant Corvettes, hitting them square along the bridge section.

There was a brief celebration from the crew as the plasma torpedo intended for them ripped into the hull of a Covenant vessel. However, the jubilation was silenced when another blast rocked the ship heavily. It sent many falling to the floor as warning lights began to blare loudly in their ears.

"Damage to the port side hull, sir," Retz quickly reported. "We got a fire on two separate decks. I'm dispatching teams to deal with it."

"We need to get serious here then," Zek reasoned. "Evasive manoeuvres, people! This was just the warmup. 'Vadamee has us outnumbered and outgunned. We need to blast our way through his fleet before we end up blasted ourselves! No more half-measures, give them everything we got!"

With that command, the Fallen Serpent unleashed a barrage of plasma and energy bolts in every direction. At the same time, the ship leaned hard to the right to avoid another volley of plasma torpedoes heading straight for them. More ships descended on their position regardless and Zek knew he'd have to take a lot more out if they had any chance of escape.

While it felt good to be back in the relative safety of the Normandy, it did little to ease Shepard's troubled state of mind. He had nearly helped exterminate billions of lives on the whim of an insane ancient synthetic and there was also the prospect of the Flood hanging over his head. If the Forerunners had been that desperate to stop it, to kill all life just to kill the Flood, then it was clear what kind of threat they posed.

He couldn't help but think what would happen if they found the wormhole. Regardless of the instability of the anomaly, there was still a chance they could get through. As if the Reapers weren't enough to worry about. If something like that happened, the Reapers would probably be facing these parasites instead of the organics they expected to harvest.

Despite these dire thoughts, Shepard was at least happy to see have his entire crew back together, save for those still at Alpha Base. It was especially a relief to see Tali alive as well after what had happened. Her story of what had happened after he had been taken by Guilty Spark was both distressing and infuriating. He no longer felt the slightest bit of remorse about blowing this ring to kingdom come now. The Monitor had almost cost Tali her life, taking his home seemed more than an adequate reprisal for that.

However, Tali's narrow escape wasn't the only thing the quarian wanted to share. She asked him, Garrus, Kasumi and Legion to meet in Shepard's cabin. Apparently, she needed to explain something to them all. Exactly what, Shepard could scarcely imagine, but the way she sounded when she called for the meeting made it sound rather serious.

"Thanks for coming everyone," Tali greeted them all as they assembled in the room. "I know it seems odd that I wanted to talk to all of you specifically, but once I explain things you'll understand. I realise it may not seem as important, considering everything going on. Recent events, however, have made me rethink my position of silence."

"Given what we've just had to take in, I doubt you could surprise us at this point, Tali," Garrus informed her. "I'm still wondering if it was a good idea to let Master Chief go off alone on this little sabotage scheme."

"He's not alone, he has Cortana," Tali assured him. "To be frank, that may be all the help he'll need right now."

"Tali does have a point," Shepard was quick to concur. "These past few days we've seen him in action. He lives up to all the hype we've heard, and then some. Right now, I think we'd just be getting in his way."

Kasumi, who had previously been busy teasing Shepard's fish with her finger, pulled her head away from the glass.

"I'd thought you'd be more upset, Shep," she said surprised. "He kinda stiffed us back there and we could've helped out. I mean, I thought that's why Halsey sent us with him."

"I don't think he was refusing help," Shepard responded simply. "Nor do I think he's dismissing our ability to help him. Something tells me he feels going solo is just less risky, for both us and him. Trust me, when the time comes he'll call us in. Right now, we just got to let him do what he was trained to do."

Kasumi just shrugged, trusting in Shepard's instincts concerning the Spartan. In any case, he wasn't what they were here to talk about. Tali cleared her throat, returning everyone's attention to her.

"Oddly enough, it's Cortana I need to talk about now more than the Master Chief," she began to explain. "Specifically, the work I conducted on her fragment back on Reach with Doctor Halsey."

"You mean the transcribing of all that information from the artefact into her memory?" Shepard asked confused. "I don't understand, why's that important now?"

"Does it have something to do with Halo?" Garrus asked. "How we can destroy it or stop it from firing?"

Tali just shook her head at Garrus' question.

"It actually has to do more with me," she admitted softly, almost sounding guilty. "You see, Halsey wasn't just training me to be Cortana's engineer. And there was more to our work than simply uploading everything from the artefact into her memory. The fragmentation of an AI is rarely done, because of the potential damage it can do to the core. The risk was necessary in order for Cortana to be in two places at once, both with Chief in training and with Halsey in her lab. It presented a rare opportunity that became too lucrative to ignore given what she was training me to do."

"What kind of opportunity?" Kasumi asked cautiously.

"|When you fragment an AI, they're the not the whole program anymore," Tali slowly explained. "They're a piece of the main personality matrix, a section of the subconscious artificial mind. There's space now, space that can be added to or built upon."

Tali took a seat down on the large couch, clutching her hands together nervously as she did.

"What do you mean added to?" Garrus asked.

"Function similar to that of Geth," Legion was quick to hypothesize. "All Geth can connect with one another. Neural network allows us to share cognitive experiences. Together, networked, we create cohesive whole. It is as we said when we first met, we are all Geth."

"And can form into a cohesive entity that walks, talks and fights bad guys with you," Kasumi reasoned. "Okay, I get that, what does that have to do with what Tali is talking about?"

The quarian took a deep breath before continuing.

"When Halsey heard about how the Geth developed sentience through the neural network, she realised it aligned with some of her own theories," she readily elucidated. "She believed a fragmented AI could network with another AI fragment in the same way the Geth did. That it could be done, because neither fragment was a complete whole. Just like no singular Geth program is a complete whole without the network. But unlike the Geth, AI fragments are elements of actual true AI, not just programs formed together to increase their collective intelligence."

Tali quickly glanced over at Legion with a look of concern.

"No offence by the way, Legion," she assured it.

"The statement is accurate," the synthetic replied. "We would not perceive emotional wrongdoing even if possible."

Tali just nodded and continued onward.

"Now, an AI fragment, merged with another, would be different from a geth in two ways," she explained. "One, it would be two true AI fragments merging their processes and runtimes together, but not yet complete. Not until they were reuploaded into one of the personality cores of the AI either of them originally came from."

"Two separate AI fragments forming into a single greater fragment," Shepard reasoned rather quickly.

"The second difference is that the merged fragment, once reuploaded, would drastically increase the cognitive and functional capabilities of said AI that receives it," Tali continued excitedly "Just like how geth Network. Unlike the geth, however, they would not be able to perceive the foreign element of the fragment because it would be embedded deep within its personality matrix. Like a memory or experience buried deep within your subconscious. They would only recognize their increased abilities, which would be expected when any fragment is returned to the original AI matrix. The presence of the AI's original code within the merged fragment would also mask the foreign element."

"So you're saying," Garrus started suddenly, slowly trying to process everything. "That Halsey took the fragment of a different AI, neutrally attached it to the Cortana fragment you were working on with her and then had you upload it into Cortana?"

Again, Tali could only nod while nervously wringing her hands.

"All for the chance of making her an even better AI than she already was," Shepard deduced succinctly. "The question is, why Cortana? And what AI did she use anyway?"

"The former is more complicated," Tali started shakily. "The latter is why I never really said anything until now. The other AI fragment, the one me and Halsey linked to Cortana's... it was mine."

A collective silence fell over the room for a moment. A collective sense of befuddlement at the quarian's meaning behind her words fell over all present. It was only broken by Kasumi, who spoke the one word that was otherwise stuck in the throats everyone else.

"Yours?" She said in an overpoweringly bewildered tone.

"AIs here are constructed by using the brain waves of humans to form their matrixes," Tali elaborated. "It's what makes them able to learn like an organic mind would. Cortana is different though, Halsey made her with a flash clone of her own brain she digitized. Living humans are never used for AI creation, it's illegal. She felt the only other AI that could successfully network with Cortana was one that was created with the same procedure. So that was what she did."

Tali got up from her seat at that moment. She walked over to a corner of the room with her head held low, refusing to look at anyone as she did. All the while, she kept talking.

"I gave Halsey some tissue samples from my mouth, my blood, even a few of my hair follicles, anything with DNA," She further clarified. "She used the samples to flash clone a portion of my brain, enough to create a sustainable fragment of an AI. Then she had me upload it into Cortana's fragment. So when I say the AI was mine, I mean it was mine. It came from me, just like Cortana came from Halsey."

A shared look of shock passed over the group's face. They all looked to each other, if only to see if they weren't the only ones taken aback by the information. Only Legion seemed unaffected, but that was probably only because it had no proper means of expression. Shepard was the first to approach Tali, his look of surprise giving way to concern.

"I don't understand," he began carefully. "You helped to make an AI from your cloned brain tissue, a partial AI to be exact. Why'd you let Halsey do that? It just sounds... extreme, especially for you."

"I wasn't sure about it at first either," Tali admitted. "But Halsey was very convincing. Besides doubling Cortana's capabilities, it would also give her a jumpstart on information concerning our technology. I reasoned it could help us integrate our ship's Mass Effect Drive with the Slipspace Engine. Not to mention allow her to offer insight on improving our ship's systems. It was why she was ideal for fixing our security after Guilty Spark's intrusion. Not to mention how her increased functionality and ability would better assist the Master Chief in the field."

"I know you better than that," Shepard politely noted. "There was more to this than technical reasons, I can tell."

Tali nodded in response. She had called this meeting to come clean, no sense in only admitting to half the story.

"Halsey said I needed to understand the connection between the AI and the creator," she conceded. "I had already gotten close to working with that Cortana fragment, as well as the original brain that made it. I felt like I already knew Cortana just by working with a piece of her. Suddenly Halsey was offering me a chance to jumpstart a reciprocating connection. All I had to do was allow a piece of myself to network with a fragment of her. It seemed only fair, like I said I had already gotten to know her so well."

Tali finally turned to face her crewmates once more. She was still hesistant to make eye contact, however. This was especially so with Shepard, her silver eyes shifting to any place he wasn't. She was afraid of what she'd find staring back.

"The part of myself that's inside Cortana forces a sense of responsibility within me," she tried to continue. "Halsey wanted me to look out for her, to guide her in her mission. She made Cortana specifically for the Master Chief, prepared her to become his partner. I think Halsey wanted me to reinforce elements of her personality and abilities in order to further help him."

"You mean like making him an even better killing machine?" Garrus asked, somewhat confused.

"No," Tali firmly denied as she shook her head. "Halsey wants him to be more than just some weapon. She sees something special in him, Cortana is there to bring it out. I'm here to reinforce her connection to Chief through my connection with her. At least, that's what I think Halsey intended. It's the best I could gleam from both her journal and what she told me."

As Tali tried her best to explain things, Kasumi suddenly spoke up with a nagging question of her own.

"Why didn't you tell us this sooner?" She worriedly asked. "Were you afraid we'd think less of you because you're the first quarian to make an AI in centuries? Come on, Tali, we're your friends! We'd never think that way."

"I was afraid what everyone would think," the quarian confessed sadly. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have thought as such. It's just... I made such a big deal of things when I heard about Admiral Xen wanting to make new AIs and about Legion networking with DOT. I thought if you knew the truth that I'd look like a hypocrite. I know I felt like one at times."

Shepard walked over to Tali and gently placed a hand on her shoulder before moving her face to look at his.

"You're not a hypocrite," he assured her. "You were just struggling with something new, the fact you had a bond with an AI for once. I understand it couldn't have been easy. I wish you had told us sooner, but it doesn't make me think less of you."

Tali smiled under her faceplate at the Commander and then looked over at Legion. Her eyes met the synthetic's singular optic sensor and waited for a response.

"Creator-Tali Zorah wished to better understand the nature of synthetics, we find nothing disagreeable about this," it informed her. "We also understand the situation is different. It involved two fragments of an existing AI of the same method of construction. The difference from our association with program-DOT is evident. We find no fault in your logic."

Tali was inwardly relieved to hear that, her smile growing wider. However, she had more to share.

"The other reason I didn't tell you was because I was afraid of the potential side effects," she explained. "Halsey knew well enough the experiment wasn't without risks, more so when I explained Legion's glitch to her. Even though she thought the chances were decreased in this circumstance, she still worried about Cortana's personality matrix being overridden, even with only a tiny foreign fragment inserted into it."

"What was she worried about exactly?" Garrus asked, strangely interested. "It sounds like she thought Cortana could've become, what, a Talitana?"

Kasumi just snorted.

"This is why we don't let you come up with nicknames for things, Garrus," the thief chided him. "Talitana, seriously, that is so generic it hurts."

Garrus growled lowly at Kasumi, but Tali was quick to redirect their attention.

"Halsey was concerned that my fragment could just as easily corrupt Cortana's matrix," she explained. "I had to watch for signs of potential degradation. I had to watch for symptoms that her personality was becoming corrupted by my experiences. If my connection showed signs that it was artificial and not natural, if I ever felt she wasn't acting how she was supposed to be, I was to remove my fragment by whatever means necessary. Not just for her sake, but the Master Chief's as well."

"Such a procedure would risk damage to Program-Cortana's personality matrix," Legion noted rather succinctly. "The fragmentation of an AI of her structure is traumatic. To locate your fragment, you would potentially have to commit said process several times."

"I didn't want to put Cortana through that," Tali declared adamantly. "But the alternative would've been letting her crash completely or her matrix shattering into split personalities. At least with the procedure we'd have a chance at returning her to normal. Thankfully, it proved unnecessary. The networking process worked as Halsey surmised. I haven't seen any signs of Cortana's personality being afflicted and my routine checks continue to show her matrix remains unchanged. My fragment hasn't overridden her core processes, it is contained and benign."

Tali mildly chuckled suddenly.

"I'd like to think that's part of my personality," she warmly confessed. "That my fragment is acting as a loyal crewmember. That she wants to serve her new home, as it were."

Shepard crossed his arms briefly before rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

"Was there any moment you were concerned that wasn't the case?" He asked.

"Only one, when Cortana was placed into the Control Centre's command console," Tali answered immediately. "That was why I was so worried, but reluctant to offer an explanation before. Cortana's sudden shift in tone unnerved me. I thought it could be my fault. That plugging her into the console had done something to her. I didn't want to jump to conclusions though. I didn't want a repeat of the Geth Uprising, where everyone assumed the worst and reacted before thinking. That's why I needed to see her first and from what we learned, both from my scans and Cortana herself, my fragment is still benign."

"But you're still worried that could change, right?" Garrus cautiously asked.

Tali sighed at Garrus' words. She had hoped that question wouldn't come up.

"There's always the possibility," she sadly admitted. "I doubt it would occur at this stage. I imagine in a number of years, when AI begin to go rampant, it might happen as her personality matrix breaks down on its own. Or, it could happen if she becomes consciously aware."

"So, Cortana doesn't know then?" Kasumi asked.

Tali's melancholy state returned as she sat back down on the foot of the bed. She held her forehead in her palms, shaking it about as she did.

"I want to tell her," Tali nervously stated, her words sticking at times in her throat. "At least so she knows, at least so I can be judged but... Keelah, I'm afraid she'll hate me for it. What I did, I didn't really do with her permission. Her fragment seemingly accepted the process. My fragment wouldn't have survived otherwise. It would've rejected it like an antibody does to germs. It's different from the core though, the main matrix. Sometimes I wonder if I violated her... if it was right. Every time I talk with Cortana I... ugh, I feel like a bosh'tet in the back of my mind. She deserves to know, but I worry if it might literally hurt her more. And if she hates me for it, fixing the problem may be even harder."

Shepard slowly sat down beside the quarian. He took her hands away from her head and held them in his own.

"I didn't know you were dealing with all this," Shepard told her sweetly. "But I want you to know, what you did you did trying to better yourself and Cortana. Don't be ashamed of that. I'm not going to tell you that you need to admit to her what you and Halsey did, and I'm not sure how she'll take it. But if your bond is as strong as you think it is because of this little connection you share with each other, I doubt she'll hate you for it. If a piece of her accepted a part of you into her, I'd like to think Cortana as a whole wanted that connection too."

Tali's eyes lit up once more, her smile returned and she pulled Shepard into a hug. He didn't say anything in response. He simply returned the gesture in kind. For Tali, a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Not completely of course, but at least she wasn't hiding the truth from her closest friends anymore. She was just glad that her darkest fears, about what they'd all think of her, had been proven unfounded.

"Say, since a part of you is inside Cortana now," Kasumi suddenly spoke up, interrupting the moment between the Commander and the quarian. "Does that make you like... her adopted Aunt or Mom or something? Or does you being inside her mean you're Bi-"

"Do not even go there, Kas," Tali jokingly warned.

As the thief put her hands up, signalling an end to her brief stint of good natured ribbing, the intercom sounded.

"Commander," Miranda's voice announced. "You may want to come down to the QEC in the briefing room, in fact, all of you may want to."

"The QEC?" Shepard asked, standing up from the bed. "How the hell is that thing active? It was only connected to-"

Shepard's look of shock turned to one of disgust as the thought hit him.

"Son of a bitch, how the hell is he contacting us?" He demanded to know.

"It's not the Illusive Man, Shepard," Miranda informed him. "It's someone else, a certain extremely powerful information broker that we all know."

Shepard's anger dissipated, and was replaced with a renewed sense of astonishment. He was joined the by the others who looked up at the intercom with mouths agape, save for Legion whose eye had simply grown in size.

"Liara?" Was the only word Shepard could squeak out in the end.

In an instant, the Commander and everyone else in the room bolted from where they were standing or sitting and made a beeline for the elevator. They needed to get down to briefing room, now.

The Master Chief moved through the corridors with his shotgun pointed forward. His motion tracker was lit up with numerous red dots. Most of said dots were revealed to be Covenant, who had quickly re-established themselves within the halls. However, as Cortana predicted the alien fanatics weren't the only ones lurking about. The Flood were present as well, although their numbers varied.

As the Spartan kept cover behind a small piece of a cover, a small battle was being waged just behind said wall. Grunts were screaming in terror, firing their plasma pistols at invading Infection forms. Jackals were using their shields to knock any of the creatures back. The Elite Commanders were at the centre of the fight, trying to keep the Infection Forms away from themselves.

"The Combat Forms can't be far away," Cortana cautioned. "Those little parasites are just probing for weaknesses."

"Not betting on the Covenant being able to hold these canyons?" Chief asked her quietly.

"If you were hearing the chatter I am, you wouldn't either," Cortana gravely stated. "This is probably the best possible plan they could come up with, a simultaneous strike and they're still having trouble making headway."

Master Chief normally would've liked seeing the Covenant struggle, but that just meant the Flood had the upper hand. He still wasn't entirely sure which group he'd prefer to face. Right now though, he had to agree with Cortana's assessment, it was best to get out of here before the Flood really came down on this room in force.

In an attempt to bypass the small firefight, Chief kept to the outer rim of the room, behind the wall. For a brief moment, he felt as if he was in the clear. Unfortunately, one of the grunts chickened out at the wrong moment. He fled from his comrades as one of the freakish parasites started biting in his neck. The little alien ran out in front of Chief, prying the Infection Form loose and tossing it into the wall. Although bleeding profusely from his fresh wound, the grunt still had enough of his faculties remaining to spot the Spartan mere feet in front of him.

"Demon! Demon here!" It screeched, preparing to fire his little plasma pistol.

With no choice, Chief pulled the trigger on his shotgun. The blast threw the little alien onto his back and ripped apart his chest. Now every Covie in the room knew he was here. He barely had enough time to seek shelter behind a bit of architecture as one of the Elite Commanders rushed out into the open, his plasma rifle firing full throttle.

"So much for surprise," Cortana grumbled.

"Ideas?" Chief asked her as he loaded a fresh shell into the gun.

"Motion tracker suggests the second Elite is leading a portion of his squad to flank us from the rear," she quickly stated. "A classic 'Hammer and Anvil' tactical manoeuvre, you best ready a grenade."

The Spartan took the AI's advice and pulled out one of his frags.

"On my signal," Cortana advised. "Now! Toss it!"

Chief could already hear the Elite coming up the outer rim towards him. Trusting Cortana's intuition, he activated the explosive and threw it back down the corridor. He didn't expect it to kill any of the Covenant, but it would keep them at bay awhile longer.

As the sound of the explosion erupted on cue, the Master Chief burst from cover. He fired the Phalanx pistol at the elite in front of him. The disruptor rounds cut through the alien's shields quickly and pierced its skin. As the elite reeled from the attack, Chief switched back to his shotgun and blew the Elite away.

To his right he could see a Jackal lining up a kill shot from his needler at him, his protective shield slightly lowered as he backed away. Chief turned and let loose another shotgun blast that ripped into the Jackal's side. Without even stopping, he turned back to his front and slammed the butt of his shotgun down at the centre of a grunt's skull. As he trampled over the falling alien's body, he made a beeline for the exit once more.

A duo of Jackals tried to stop him. They rushed up from the small passageway and used their shields to block his way. Chief pulled out his assault rifle and let loose with a spray of rounds as plasma bolts pelted his shields. He worked his fire down towards the slightly exposed feet of the Jackals and managed to nick their heels. As they knelt down in pain, the Master Chief used his forward momentum to slam into one of the two aliens.

His own shields in the red, Chief knew a full blast of a plasma pistol at this range would be dangerously life threatening. He reacted fast, forcing his arm against the Jackal and pinning him to the wall. He then pulled out Shepard's phalanx pistol once more, aimed it back towards the second Jackal's now exposed rear and fired. As he fell, Chief turned the still living Jackal he was pushing against the passage wall. He jammed his pistol's barrel into the pinned alien's face and pulled the trigger.

The Spartan now hurried into the passage itself, his weapon drawn. He passed another bit of architecture and found a ramp leading upward. He spotted a Jackal standing atop the ramp, his weapon aimed down at him. Before either him of the alien could fire though, a sickening shriek sounded. Rushing at the Jackal appeared an Elite Combat Form, baying for blood. The monster swung its powerful tentacle arm before the poor Covie could turn his head. The Jackal's screech of pain sounded as the alien's skinny body was thrown against the wall like a ragdoll.

Chief unloaded his shotgun at the Combat Form, blowing it to pieces before it could turn its fury on the Spartan next. Chief managed to blast its right limb off before a second shot tore into its torso. The Combat Form groaned as it collapsed to the ground dead once more.

"Looks like the Flood are already hitting back in force," Cortana cautioned as the Master Chief marched up the ramp.

When the Spartan arrived, he was met with a grim sight. A swath of dead Covenant bodies littered the long corridor. Their blood stained the once pristine silverfish walls, alongside one or two of the Flood Combat forms that faced them. One Combat Form was still present and alive though, beating a grunt's body against a support column. The Master Chief fired a shotgun blast into the creature's back, ending its senseless brutality with a single shot.

"At least the Covenant are putting up their usual stubborn fight," Cortana surmised. "It should cut the Flood's numbers significantly as we progress."

"Doesn't feel like it's enough," Chief noted as he stepped over the bodies.

"The Covenant isn't prepared for this kind of fight," she explained. "No one is to be frank, but standard Covenant battle strategy doesn't work as well against the Flood. They prefer to use massive firepower to overwhelm and smash through the enemy defences. The basic strategy of the Flood counters that though. They use overwhelming numbers instead of firepower. They never defend, only attack. Although, they do seem a lot more ordered than what you'd expect given that information."

Looking about the room, the mangled Covenant dead all around him, Chief couldn't find fault in that logic.

"I saw that in the swamps," He concurred. "The Infection Forms act as frontline feelers against the enemy and then they send in the bulk of their force. Not to mention how they're somehow able to set up ambushes for their prey."

"I saw that too when I was in the Control Centre," Cortana informed him. "Considering the Flood is able to use our weapons, I wonder if they can retain some of their host's rudimentary intelligence as well. Those ambush tactics seemed awfully similar to how we train our Marines. They may be able to assimilate useful information when they take over a host and not just completely replace the mind."

The AI sounded increasingly worried as she spoke. Chief couldn't blame her. This wasn't your typical enemy. If they could learn from their prey just by consuming them... he didn't like what that meant if they had the Captain.

"Chief, maybe we should request Shepard send us some backup," Cortana reasoned. "Given everything I'm seeing on the battlenet and what we're learning here, it seems unwise to go at this alone when we have other options."

"We can handle this," The Spartan assured her. "Shepard's team will be of more use to the others than us right now. Besides, it's easier to sneak through this combat zone alone than with a group."

"You have any other reasons besides those ones?" Cortana asked him mordantly.

Chief stopped dead in his track and lowered his weapon.

"What are you implying?" Chief stoically asked her.

"A lone operative is more subtle," Cortana admitted astutely. "But having some close range support wouldn't hurt either. You didn't even want that though, you just shrugged them off entirely. They're more than capable of fighting the Flood and the Covenant. They've proven that. You weren't adverse to their help before, Chief. Why start rejecting them now?"

"Because we're going after Halo's firing mechanism now," he reminded her, raising his voice only slightly. "I assumed The Monitor was going to retaliate and those Sentinels appearing proved I was right. I didn't want Shepard or any of his team in the line of fire when that happened."

Cortana was silent, but the Spartan could tell she wanted more of an answer. Fine, she'd get one.

"You heard The Monitor before," he continued, sounding a bit downtrodden as he did. "He thinks Shepard's team is an obstacle to his protocol now. You and Tali said it yourselves. He'll remove anything that he perceives as a threat to his primary function. The only reason he thinks that means Shepard's crew though is because of me. He went after me to help get the Index and dragged Shepard along for the ride. If it wasn't for me, they wouldn't be targets now."

"You can't blame yourself for The Monitor's actions," Cortana tried to tell him. "He's a borderline rampant little idiot. He would've come to that conclusion one way or another."

"Maybe, but I played a part in him rationalising it sooner," The Master Chief explained. "I won't put Shepard or his people's lives in more danger like that because of me. That's not happening again."

The Spartan continued to move through the corridor, his gun back in the firing position. Cortana, of course, wasn't about to drop the conversation though. She was far too nosy for that, being an infiltration program and all. It didn't take her long either to figure out the root of the issue at hand. Nor did it take her long to express it aloud.

"I get it now," she reasoned knowingly. "This is about the other Spartans, isn't it? This is about Reach, about what happened to your team."

He should've known she'd figure it out. She was too smart for her own good. She was in his head after all. While that didn't mean she could read his mind, she saw everything he saw, could monitor how he felt. She was plugged into the system, his system. He couldn't hide anything from her for long.

And, to his own confusion, he didn't seem to be trying to anymore.

"I failed them," Chief replied to her, choosing not to deny Cortana's conclusion for whatever reason. "I sent them down to the planet and left them behind. I almost failed Linda too, if not for the Normandy's intervention. I won't potentially waste more lives just to make this easier for me. Right now, I'm better off alone."

"But Chief-"

Cortana was unable to finish, as the sudden sounds of battle ahead cut the AI off. The Master Chief rushed up to the entrance to the next room. Pressing himself the edge of the entryway he peered up to see the legs of several Combat Forms rush by him. Plasma fire followed soon after, accompanied by the varied panicked voices of the besieged Covenant.

Master Chief moved out into the room proper, taking cover behind a nearby piece of architecture. He kept watch as two Elites engaged the Flood directly. Their plasma rifles burned at the flesh of the Combat Forms, but it did little to halt them. Where a living target would feel the searing pain of the plasma bolt, the Flood only paused momentarily from the direct impact.

One of the Elites was struck across the face by a Combat Form's tentacle appendage. In response, the Covenant Soldier fired his weapon into the open sore on the creature's chest. It proved more effective than the previous spray of shots as the plasma burned through the dead creature's flesh and killed the parasite that had taken route there. As the Combat Form fell, the Elite quickly fell back alongside his companion. The Flood followed, as did the Master Chief at a distance.

The Elites pulled back towards a small squad of grunts, who yelped in terror at the sight of the Combat Forms. To their credit, they did not simply run away. They tried firing back on the undead monstrosities, overcharging their plasma pistols in the hopes of doing more damage.

However, their actions only seemed to attract the Combat Forms. One of them managed to leap over the heads of the Elites and landed just feet in front of the grunts. Now the little aliens fled in terror, still firing on the creature that gave chase. One poor grunt was tossed aside for his efforts to kill the monster, his spine twisting and bending from the sheer force of the Combat Form's strike.

The best advantage the Covenant seemed to have in this fight was the fact that these Flood were not armed. What they lacked in bullets, they made up for in sheer strength. The Elites tried to exploit this lack of ranged attacked by keeping out of their reach, but the Combat Forms just kept closing.

When one Elite shot a Combat Form down a second tackled him to the ground. The abomination wrapped its tentacle appendage around the Covie's neck and tried to choke him with it. The Elite fought through the pain and aimed his plasma weapon at the creature's arm joint. He burned the arm off, releasing the Combat Form's hold on him. He then plugged the alien with two fresh Plasma Bolts, straight into the alien's chest.

It was now Chief chose his time to strike. With both sides severely weakened, he reasoned it would be a simple enough matter to fight his way through them to the exit. He rushed out of his hiding spot, his shotgun drawn and fired into the back of one of the few remaining Combat Forms. The battered Elites were the only enemies in his way now. Chief had no illusions they would see him as an unexpected saviour. Monsters or no monsters, they were still at war with each other.

Sure enough, the second the tackled Elite saw the Spartan, he opened fire. Chief's shields took the hits and he fired off a shotgun blast as the alien tried to stand back up. The Covie's shields were gone, so the buckshot met no resistance as it perforated the elite. He fell back down to the ground, bleeding.

His companion roared in anger and charged at the Master Chief, plasma rifle flaring to the point it began to overheat. That didn't stop him from using to club the Spartan in the head. Chief had only been slightly caught off guard by the attack and recovered quickly. It would take a lot more than a single hit to put him down.

He punched the Elite right back and then slammed the butt of his shotgun right into the alien's face. He then tried to fire at point blank range, but the Elite knocked the gun away as it fired. The Covie's plasma rifle had cooled enough to fire off a shot that hit Chief in the shoulder.

The Elite now closed for the kill, but Chief reacted faster. He shoved the shotgun's barrel into the xeno's chest as he closed. The alien grasped onto the barrel, trying to force it off him. Before he could though, Chief jerked the gun back and then thrust it forward again. The Elites hands had grasped the shotgun's pump, meaning what Chief had done was force him into loading a new shell into the chamber. Chief pulled the trigger next and let the shotgun blow a hole clean through the Covenant Officer.

"You okay?" Cortana asked. "You took quite a hit there in the shoulder."

"I'll be fine," the Spartan assured her, shrugging off the pain. "I've been hit in worse places. Let's keep moving."

Chief quickly exited the room, finding himself in a small twisting hallway. He did not want to stick around for the sounds of his battle to attract more Combat Forms. Not that it mattered though, for when he emerged outside onto the bridge he had crossed last he was in these canyons, more Flood were waiting.

The abominations were on the adjacent bridge. They were currently engaging a small Covenant patrol, desperately trying to hold the sector. Plasma and gunfire crisscrossed through the air as blinding snow fell from the sky. It was a furious fight and one Chief hoped they could avoid the majority of. He held back from pushing forwards until he could find the quickest path through.

Chief could see Jackals trying to maintain a defensive position near the edge of the bridge. He could also hear the Elite Commanders issuing order after order, demanding that their troops keep up the fire. The Flood in the meantime relentlessly kept up their fire, saturating the bridge with bullets and plasma bolts. They didn't even bother with cover, they just shrugged off whatever hit them and continued to shoot.

Master Chief looked for an opening as the fighting raged on. He saw it to the right side of the bridge. The Covenant were so focused on the fighting on the bridge to the left, that they were neglecting their rears. Taking it as his option, the Spartan rushed out along the right side of the bridge, keeping his head low. Plasma and gunfire flew over his head, but none of it seemed directly aimed at him.

The Spartan didn't stop until he reached nearby cover next to a wall in the center of the expanse. He peeked out just to be sure he hadn't been spotted. He now could see the Elites who were in command. Their leader was a Golden Armoured Elite, his plasma sword gesturing towards the Flood he wanted his men to kill. When he wasn't swinging the blade around, he was using it to block the incoming fire aimed at him. All that mattered to the Master Chief though, was whether or not the Lead Elite would suddenly turn the sword on him.

As the Master Chief prepared to make another run though, things changed dramatically. The Flood Combat Forms leapt the gap between the bridges. They growled loudly as they sailed through the air, firing down on the Covenant below. There was little time on the part of the Covenant to turn their weapons to the sky, for the Flood soon came crashing upon them.

One Elite was struck by the foot of one Combat Form as the abomination fired full blast into him with an assault rifle. Another Combat Form landed among a pack of Grunts and began to thrash at the little aliens. Its pistol wreaked even more havoc, gunning down the gas-suckers who tried to get away. The only Covie who seemed to be having any success was the Golden Armoured leader. His plasma sword sliced away at the offending Combat Forms as they tried to engage him.

Not wanting to get involved, the Master Chief tried to make a run for it instead like originally planned. As he did, even more Combat Forms catapulted themselves across the gap. One landed right in front of Chief's path, armed with, of all weapons, a damn Rocket Launcher. With no concern for its own life, the Combat Form took aim at the Spartan from point blank range. Chief fired his shotgun at the abomination, tearing off the creature's limb. The Rocket Launcher went off as the arm fell away, but luckily the projectile flew off into the sky before exploding.

Unfortunately, it attracted the attention of the other Combat Forms and everything else on the bridge. Another of the abominations clawed over the wall behind Chief and tried to tackle him. The Spartan turned and fired on the monster as it tried to fall on him. As the pieces of the undead creature fell around him, Chief's shields suddenly pitched into the red. A second Combat Form, armed with a shotgun, had rushed from further up the bridge and had fired at the Spartan's back.

Chief rolled to the side as the Flood fired his shotgun again. Chief returned fire on the Combat Form and managed to blow the top half the torso clean-off the monster. The Spartan made a mad dash for the other end of the bridge. As he kept running, more Flood leapt over the gap towards him. Plasma fire rained down and Chief turned to fire on its origin. He blew a Flood clean out of the air and watched his body fall past the edge of the bridge and towards the frozen wastes below.

"Chief, we have an enemy coming up from behind us!" Cortana warned frantically

He quickly looked behind him to see the Golden-Clad Elite was still alive and was now hot on his tail. Chief fired his shotgun back at the charging alien, who deflected most of the buckshot with his sword. His second shot had more success, but the alien's shield protected him.

That was when more Combat Forms attacked. They went for the Covie rather than the Master Chief for some reason. Some tried to charge at the Covenant Officer while others shot at him with their plasma rifles, draining his shields from afar.

The Elite slashed at the onrushing Combat Forms, delaying his advance and increasing the distance between the Spartan and the Golden Armoured Covie as they ran. Chief kept firing his shotgun, hoping the Flood onslaught would weaken his opponent enough for a clean hit to find its mark.

As they closed on the door that led off the bridge, Master Chief ducked behind a small barrier and pointed his gun forward at the corner. He awaited his Covenant adversary to appear, hoping to end this chase before it went further.

Suddenly, a Flood Combat Form's shredded body was flung into the cliff wall, followed by the Elite himself. He was now bleeding badly along his right arm. Before the alien could even catch his breath, a string of assault rifle shots slammed into his weakened body. The Elite refused to be killed so easily though. The Flood armed with the rifle appeared next and the Elite shoved his Plasma Sword clean into the Combat Form's chest, killing it with ease.

As the Elite tore his sword from the decaying monster, he turned to the Master Chief again. Although injured and without shields, the alien refused to give up his pursuit of the human. He made one final lunge at the Spartan, sword held high. Chief ducked down and pointed the shotgun up. When he pulled the trigger, the blast eviscerated the Covenant Leader's head and the body of the alien fell to the floor of the bridge in a heap.

"Even the Covenant's best warriors are having difficulty against the Flood," Cortana noted as Chief turned to the door. "If we don't get to those generators soon, we may not have the luxury of these little skirmishes to mask our approach."

"Then we'll pick up the pace," Chief reasoned. "Let's hope for once the Covenant remains as stubborn as they usually are and keep on fighting. The more time they spend fighting each other, the less time we have to deal with them."

"Let's just be careful," Cortana cautioned. "I get the feeling we won't have that luxury up ahead. If the Flood own that bridge, chances are they own a substantial portion of the corridors leading up to it by now."

It didn't matter to the Master Chief how much of these canyons the Flood owned, they wouldn't keep him from completing the mission at hand.

The Fallen Serpent, for a Corvette, was a powerful ship in its own right. It had many weapons and features regular ships of its class did not possess. However, it could not take on an entire fleet of enemy ships and that was becoming more and more evident as the battle raged on. Zek found himself diverting more and more power to the shields in a desperate attempt to keep the Covenant's plasma torpedoes from tearing the vessel apart.

"Another Seraph squadron on our rear," Retz warned. "They're targeting out engines again! They've already fired several long range shots!"

The ship shook violently forward as the blasts hit.

"What happened there?" Zek asked.

"Direct hit on one of our thrusters," Retz reported. "We may have a fuel line rupture."

"Cut power to it, we can't risk it exploding and taking out the other thrusters," Zek ordered. "Get repair crews to find and fix that rupture. We need every ounce of juice we can manage if we're going to get out of here."

The scanners went haywire once more as a new squadron of Seraphs raked plasma fire across the bridge's shields. The screen then showed them heading towards the backside of the ship once more.

"We need to get them off us," Zek reasoned. "They're going to bite us to death otherwise."

"They've gotten wise to our increased defences, Zek," Retz warned. "They're avoiding the AA guns!"

"Then it's time to switch tactics," Zek decreed. "Prepare to drop our first surprise! We're going to blow the little insects into vapour!"

The alarm sounded again as one of the crew mates from another scanner called over to Zek.

"Sir, another enemy Corvette is closing on our thrusters!" He screeched. "They're joining the Seraph's attack run!"

"HA! They must've spotted the damage to the thrusters! They smell blood in the water then!" Zek chortled. "All the better! They won't be left out of our little surprise! Lucky them! Open the airlocks when ready mates!"

The Covenant fighters flew ahead of the Corvette. They armed their heavy weapons in preparation for another strike. The Corvette in the meantime prepared to launch everything it had once the fighters were clear. However, that opportunity would never come. The rear airlock doors across the Fallen Serpent's stern opened wide. Tumbling out of them were several large plasma bombs of considerable size. Not just any bombs though, remote activated ones.

As the fighters closed, those monitoring the bombs pressed down on the triggers. The following explosion consumed all fighters near. Those that survived pulled immediately out of their attack run. The Covenant Corvette chasing the Fallen Serpent could not do the same. It tried to turn, but that only allowed the majority of the bombs to slam into her port side. The bombs were then detonated, rupturing great big holes in the Corvette's hull. One bomb had even slammed into the ship's bridge where it exploded moments later, killing all on deck.

As the enemy Corvette fell away, Zek's crew shouted in triumph, watching the scene on their monitors. Zek did not join their jubilation, for he was too focused on the battle still at hand. They still had a long way to go to escape the fleet. More Covenant Ships were closing in on them and they would need to react fast if they wanted to take them down.

"Frigates closing from below," Retz warned as he peered over his scanner. "They're probably going for our power supply. Without that, we can't fight back."

"And then they start boarding," Zek concluded. "Alright then, concentrate all lower guns on the frigates."

Zek put up an image from one of the ship's camera's that was installed on the underside of the Corvette. He could see the frigates closing, already firing shots up at them. The ship rocked with each hit taken. However, frigates weren't as well armoured as most Covenant vessels.

"Focus every pulse laser we have on our underside onto those ships one at a time," he ordered. "Divert reserve weapons power to them to boost their output and target the forward battery. We'll detonate their plasma torpedoes with a single shot each."

Retz relayed the orders to the gunners, hoping their pulse lasers still had enough juice to cut through the armour plating of the frigates. Moments later, every laser gun they had that could target the frigates was aiming directly at the forward battery of one of the Covenant frigates. Several powerful beams cut through the void and drilled straight through to the enemy vessel's turrets. The subsequent explosion tore the small ship to pieces.

"Target the next one," Zek commanded without missing a beat.

The laser gunners did the same trick on a second frigate and then a third. The smaller enemy ships began exploding one by one as the lasers sliced away at their hulls. However, as Zek focused on what was below, he neglected the sides of his ship. A new alarm sounded across the ship, signalling a collision warning. Retz quickly checked his screens and saw the awful truth.

"A light corvette just decloaked on starboard side!" He warned. "The crazy shipmaster running it is gonna ram us!"

"Get power back to our turrets!" Zek ordered. "All hands, brace for impact!"

Kig-yar across the Fallen Serpent grabbed anything nailed down and held on for dear life. The enemy corvette slammed into the side of the Fallen Serpent nose first. The ship was violently pitched off its course by the collision and sections of the hull were torn clean open. The enemy Corvette wasted no time in following up its charge with a volley of forward heavy plasma cannon fire.

On the bridge, many of Zek's crew were tossed to and fro. Some slammed into terminals, other fell to the floor and slid across it. Retz held on as hard he could to his own terminal as the entire vessel forcefully pitched hard to port.

"Fire our special plasma torpedoes," Zek commanded, forcing himself up from his chair, trying his best to steady himself. "Tear them apart!"

Plasma torpedoes, ones overcharged to near dangerous levels where the heat risked melting the turrets, launched from every operational gun on the Fallen Serpent's starboard side. The torpedoes slammed into the front of the corvette, utterly obliterating the bow. As the enemy ship began to explode, Retz read off the damage report.

"They hit us bad," he stated. "We've lost atmosphere across six of our decks. I've shut their airlock doors to prevent us from losing too much air. The hit also took out a number of our defensive turrets. We have a huge blindside now."

"At this rate we'll be dead before we even get to the battlecruisers," Zek groaned. "Contact Varvok, we need him to buy us more time."

This endeavour was growing tiresome to Thel. Zek clearly wasn't thinking properly if he thought he could escape the armada. No matter how battle ready his little ship was, it could not hope to match his fleet's sheer size and scope. The pirate ship would crumble, all Zek was doing was wasting his valuable time. Time that could be better spent fighting the Flood.

The only thing preventing him from ending this ridiculous sideshow was the fact Varvok was aboard the Fallen Serpent. He needed to know the batarian's place in all of this. He could not risk destroying the rogue corvette on assumptions. He needed to be sure he wasn't involved in the mutiny.

Almost as if on cue, one of his subordinates called up to him with a report.

"Sir, we are detecting a low garbled frequency coming from the enemy ship," he stated. "It's transmitting over a secure line."

"Put it through to my main screen," Thel ordered.

Appearing on the main monitor was a nervous and dirtied looking Lieutenant Commander Varvok. He appeared to be hiding in some darkened corner of the ship. As his eyes darted about he began explaining himself.

"Supreme Commander," he stated in a hushed tone. "Zek has gone mad. My men... he's captured them, placed them in chains. He says we're all going to die fighting the Flood anyway, so he might as well not go alone. You have to help us."

"I am aware," Thel informed him. "To be honest though I'm surprised you're appealing for my help."

"I may not like you, but I'm not foolish enough to do something like this," the batarian insisted. "Please, you must let up on your attacks until I can get to my men. I slipped away from my guards, but I need time to reach the brig. I can get my people off this ship, but not with all this incoming fire. That battering ram move almost got me sucked out into space."

Thel gave the batarian an odd look, but eventually nodded.

"Fine, I will inform my men to focus their attacks on other areas of the ship," Thel replied. "I shall keep trying to slow their efforts. I suggest you move fast though, the cost of your lives over my ships is deepening."

"Thank you," Varvok graciously stated. "Just forty-five minutes, trust me."

The batarian cut the transmission there. Empathy floated up beside Thel, stroking his chin.

"Well he's alive," he observed. "The question now, however, is if what he says is true."

"We may have reminded him more successfully of his place," Thel declared. "But it doesn't matter. We need to end this now, without killing the batarians before we know the full truth."

Thel turned to his own crew to issue his next command.

"Move us into the Corvette's path and prepare to target the Serpent's bridge," he ordered. "Have our Seraphs do the same while the other vessels continue to harass the pirates and slow them down. We kill Zek and his men will falter. Then we can board the ship ourselves and execute the deserters."

"As you decree, Supreme Commander," dutifully replied one of the subordinates below.

Retz's face dropped as he stared at his terminal. It caught Zek's attention as his old friend stared at him with a flustered look.

"The Seeker of Truth is moving, sir," he gravely warned. "It's... it's headed for us."

Before Zek could say anything, several Seraphs flew into view and fired on the bridge. As the room shook violently, the shields absorbing most of the impact, it became clear what Thel was doing. Zek knew they wouldn't get away from the fleet now, but he wasn't about to give up.

"Change course and fire all engines," Zek ordered. "We're turning back to Halo."

"What?" Retz asked confused. "I thought we were trying to get away from it!"

"We were trying to get away from the fleet," Zek reminded him. "We can't do that by leaving the system. So, the only other place they won't follow us for now is Halo itself. They won't risk one of their ships getting attacked and overrun by the Flood after all."

Retz reluctantly nodded at his friend's logic and checked his screen.

"Well it seems like the heavy attacks have stopped," he stated. "We can probably keep ahead of the Seeker of Truth for awhile, but these fighters are going to take a toll even at our top speed."

"Then we need to get our contingency plan ready," Zek informed him. "In the meantime, keep shields up on high and route weapons power to all remaining defensive turrets."

There was a slight explosion as another flight of seraphs bombarded the bridge. Sparks flew out of a wall as a line ruptured and spewed out coolant onto the floor. Small fires started bursting up from the wiring, forcing the crew to try and put it out. Throughout the chaos, the ship managed to complete its hard turn back towards Halo itself.

"Full speed ahead," Zek ordered. "Looks like that ancient hunk of space junk may be our salvation after all."

Considering everything that had been going wrong, it was nice to get a spot of good news. The long dormant QEC was active once again and on the other line was a much needed friendly face. It was good to see Liara again, especially after the threats Balak had thrown their way a few days prior. Shepard hadn't doubted the asari's resourcefulness for a second, but he was happy to have confirmation his faith had not been misplaced regardless.

Most of the crew was gathered around the QEC, carefully listening to Liara's abbreviated story. Apparently she had been through quite an ordeal herself, one comparable to their own. She had a lot of news to share, both dire and informative. Despite that, it was still good to see and hear her, even if some of what she had to say was most troubling. Occasionally, Shepard cut in to share his own information about what was going on where they were. Before long a clear picture had formed and both sides were caught up on present events.

"So that's the long and short of it," Liara summed up. "Balak is building up for a massive galactic upheaval, unaware that the Reapers are playing both him and the Covenant."

"And now Cerberus is interested in the wormhole too," Shepard grumbled. "As if we don't have enough problems right now, he has to show up."

"The Illusive Man won't give up on his designs so easily," Miranda warned. "Even without a direct line of communication, he'll probably try to send troops through the wormhole via stealth technology. We should be on the lookout for them."

It was a conclusion that Liara readily agreed with. Although she did recognize that there were more pressing concerns for them at the moment.

"For the time being, you should focus on getting of this Halo you stumbled on," Liara reminded them. "Not to mention the Flood. If what you describe is accurate, they make the Reapers look like taking on a rabid Varren."

"We just gotta blow up an ancient artificial ringworld to solve that problem," Shepard shrugged. "It's typical day for us to be honest."

Liara laughed slightly at that.

"And now I owe Wrex twenty credits," she scoffed. "You get into trouble wherever you go, don't you Shepard?"

"Hey, you're the one who apparently went to Khar'shan of all places," Shepard chided playfully. "Even I'm not that crazy."

"Oh trust me," Garrus was quick to casually add. "You are that crazy. We work with you, remember?"

While everyone had a good little laugh at Shepard's expense there, Tali was more interested in another subject. Specifically the one about the Forerunner ship Liara claimed to be broadcasting from.

"Liara," she began inquisitively. "Do you have an estimate on how long this Forerunner ship has been there?"

"I imagine quite a long time," the asari surmised. "Even taking into account the warped time frame differences in the two universes, I would surmise that this ship is quite old. I hazard to guess that it is more than likely even older than the Prothean civilization."

"That sounds about right, but why would the Forerunners travel to our dimension?" Tali continued to ask. "Obviously they learned about the wormhole somehow, probably from the species that created it. We know it wasn't the Reapers, it's evident they only found it recently. Even so, what were the Forerunners doing there? Hiding from the Flood? Attempting to rebuild their empire?"

"I can't be certain," Liara admitted. "But I imagine it has something to do with these artefacts the Covenant are searching for here. They seem to think it's an important element in their plans to spread their crusade in this universe."

Shepard nodded in agreement.

"You better keep an eye on that then," Shepard concluded. "And since we're in the Forerunner's home universe, don't hesitate to ask us for help figuring this out. Tali's become something of an expert concerning the Forterunners herself."

Liara looked to the quarian, seemingly interested in the news. She hadn't expected her bio-suited friend to take any kind of interest in ancient civilizations when she preferred the latest technology. Tali could only dart her eyes about in a show embarrassment behind her visor.

"I'm... not that much of an expert," she said timidly. "I just have the journal of the person who is. But, if it helps you out Liara, feel free to ask. I'm sure I can offer some assistance. I know Halsey has some translations of the Forerunner language, it could help."

"Thank you, Tali," Liara told her graciously. "I know I can count on you if I call. And who knows, you may actually grow a fondness for archaeology yourself, eventually."

"So long as the next ancient artefact we stumble upon doesn't threaten to wipe out all sentient life," Tali nervously chuckled.

However, the Forerunners were the least of their worries, as Garrus pointed out.

"One thing that worries me is that we know Inquisitor was lying to us," he said, immediately clarifying himself as he noticed everyone was giving him looks. "Yeah, I know, not much a shock. What I mean is the Covenant weren't going to replace the Collectors. According to Liara, they have more waiting in the wings. They're feeding the Collectors Covenant battle tactics, what does that tell us?"

"That they're using something similar to what Okeer used to make me for one," Grunt stated. "Not hard to figure out where he got it now."

Grunt wasn't always the fastest on the draw, but he was right about this. Okeer had likely acquired his tank-breeding tech from the Reapers. That much was evident to everyone now. They then gave it to the Covenant to help them re-train the Collectors for the eventual invasion to come. Garrus, however, had another point to make.

"It means that the Covenant isn't really the front line force, they're just there to cause instability before the Reapers arrive," the turian surmised. "In the meantime, the Reapers are using the Covenant to boost their own forces. It explains why they're churning out so many different kinds of husks on us. They're testing what works and fails for them on us. Then determining whether to add it to the arsenal or not."

"An effective strategy," Liara reasoned. "It certainly will save them resources when the time comes. Who's to say the Covenant won't volunteer willingly to be turned into husks when the Invasion arrives? They may not be indoctrinated yet, but they're certainly making themselves easy targets by allying with the Reapers. Ironically that makes them more dangerous for now. They still have full control over their minds. At least the judgement of the indoctrinated is impaired."

"That gives them advantages in other areas as well," Miranda noted. "They've done all the heavy lifting so far it seems."

Everyone turned to Miranda, eager to hear what exactly she was getting at.

"We know for certain that the Inquisitor wanted the Covenant to find the information that led us here," She explained, her hand holding her chin as she spoke. "It wanted to find Halo. That much we can be certain of given what we learned on Reach. Now, the initial reason for that, we'd assume, would be for the Ring's ability to wipe out sentient life that we just discovered."

"Further analysis proves theory unlikely," Legion was quick to suggest. "Old Machines require organic tissue to construct more superstructures. Halo Array incinerates organic life entirely in order to stop Flood from continuing to feed, as Program-Cortana's analysis suggests."

"Exactly my point," Miranda astutely replied to Legion. "Halo's destructive power is useless to them. They need to harvest us. They take this ring back home and activate it, they risk wiping out their next crop. So why else would the Inquisitor want to come here then?"

It was Tali who was first to answer Miranda's question, but everyone else had already come to the same conclusion.

"The Flood," she reasoned. "The Inquisitor wants the Flood."

"Seems like it," Kasumi added. "I mean what else is here? Unless it wants an army of those giant thorn-backed monsters Samara mentioned seeing when we landed here."

"So we should probably work under the assumption that the Inquisitor wants the Flood to get off this Ring, under its control," Shepard gravely surmised. "That could be why it's saving its energy instead of wasting it on controlling the Covenant. It needs everything it can muster to control these things. This day gets better and better, don't it?"

It was a frightening prospect. The Flood were bad enough, but under Reaper control? No one wanted to even postulate such a notion. They had to consider the possibility though, along with the possibility that the Inquisitor itself was on its way here to do just that. However, Liara considered a possibility of her own.

"Is it even possible for the Inquisitor to indoctrinate the Flood?" She asked. "After all, they're already dead. I don't think even a Reaper can control the dead, especially when we consider their rather unique biology."

"I'd rather not take the chance," Shepard informed her. "This just makes destroying this ring even more important. If the Inquisitor really intends to take control of the Flood, we can't allow Halo to be here when it shows up."

"I only I wish I could help more in that mission," Liara regretfully told them all. "Unfortunately, I doubt I'd be able to reach any of you in time, even with the skewed timeframes. I can't believe only a few days have passed since Balak contacted you, whereas it's been weeks for us. Not to mention barely a month has passed here while for you it's been trapped there for at least three. Goddess, it's enough to make my brain hurt."

"Space and Time relative," Mordin endeavoured to explain. "Possibility of separate universes becoming estranged inevitable. Instability of anomaly likely added to problematic timescale."

Shepard let Mordin finish his ramble before cutting in to try and soothe Liara's concerns over.

"We're fine here, Liara," he tried to reassure her. "We'll handle this mess over here. You need to worry about this Hegemony and Covenant Alliance for now. Disrupting it has to remain your top priority. The damage they're planning could seriously cripple the galaxy before the Reapers show up."

"Don't worry," Liara swore confidently. "Me and my team are on it. As soon as we get this ship operational and out of here, we'll be back on Balak's trail."

Before Liara could continue, she was distracted by something. She turned her head away from the group for a moment, looking to something no one else could see. Listening carefully, one could hear a faint voice in the background.

"Good, begin upload when you're ready," Liara told someone stoically. "How is Coda doing? Has he fixed the problem in the engine room?"

A few seconds passed by as Liara received her answer. She then turned back to the others.

"My tech crew has fixed one of the transmission terminals that was damaged in our fight," Liara informed them. "We're going to send you everything we've found so far. Files, data we uncovered while on Khar'shan mostly. Just to keep you in the loop in case we need your help with anything. And it looks like we're making progress on the 'Getting Out of Here' front I mentioned just now. We should be ready to launch within the hour."

"Sounds like you got a good team behind you over there," Shepard noted rather encouragingly.

"Yes, a good team," Liara said, a slight bit of her admiration gleaming through. "They have their rough spots, but I wouldn't have gotten this far without them."

Shepard just nodded in approval for now. He wanted to get back on the subject of Balak for the moment.

"Do you think Balak's aware of what his new partners are actually doing?" He asked her.

"Unlikely," Liara responded shaking her head. "His alliance with the Covenant is fragile at best. Neither group really trusts the other, the numerous secrets the Covenant have been keeping has made that clear. It is also evident that the Covenant holds more sway than the Hegemony is willing to accept. The sangheili are just using them as a smokescreen for their true intentions. Given what I've learned of the Covenant, I don't doubt they intend to eventually absorb their new 'friends' into their hierarchy when the time is right."

That hypothesis did match what they knew of the Covenant themselves. Shepard wasn't surprised Balak couldn't see it though. The guy was blind to larger repercussions. Wade had known that since Terra Nova. As long as it hurt humans, Balak would justify any means and working with anyone. He was that desperate for revenge and it sounded like it was going to screw his people over even worse.

"At best, the Hegemony can keep them contained through fear of what the Galaxy will do in response to the Covenant invasion" Liara surmised. "I'm not sure how long that will last the more impatient Vorsa gets, especially concerning these artefacts he's searching for."

"That could be to your advantage," Garrus suggested. "If you can find some cracks in their alliance, and start pushing, maybe you can break them apart. Or better yet, maybe you could even make them turn on each other."

"Ha," Zaeed chortled. "That would be hilarious. I'd give the batarians five minutes before their bloody little home world is a ball of glass. It would serve'em right."

Perhaps, but Shepard didn't like the prospect of the batarians being subjugated by the Covenant anymore than the asari or the elcor. Seeing your culture enslaved by fanatics of any creed or power was as horrifying as any form of fascism in the Commander's mind.

"Just work on fracturing the alliance somehow, Liara," Shepard suggested. "You won't make headway otherwise. If you can disrupt these operations they're planning, it should fuel their resentment of each other."

"That was my thinking as well," Liara concurred. "I think I've already identified a potential weak link in their power structure, VykurCorp. If we keep going after them, it will disrupt Balak's research and development of new weapons and tech. That and Orukuri's plans against the Turian Hierarchy seem the most advanced out of all of them."

"Are you sure you have no ideas on why Orukuri and VykurCorp have decided to throw their lot in with Balak of all people?" Garrus asked, sounding rather concerned. No one blamed him. After all, this did concern his people.

All Liara could do though was shake her head.

"Nothing in Orukuri's personality makes sense to be honest," she admitted. "I'm not sure why he's allied himself with the Hegemony and the Covenant. Rest assured though, my team and I will find out and we will stop him."

"I appreciate that, Liara," Garrus genially informed her. "If I was there I'd be helping you train the crosshairs on him myself, the traitor. Working with batarian terrorists is bad enough, but giving weapons to separatists is a new low."

"Don't worry, Garrus," Liara cordially replied. "My own turian marksman will certainly make up for your absence and put a few extra holes in Orukuri's plans just for you."

Garrus smiled a little at the thought and it was enough to placate his disappointment about not being involved. It was at that moment Liara began uploading what data she could to the Normandy. The process was slow, given the fact it was spiralling through the same transmission signal Liara was using. It was a small price to pay for enemy intelligence though.

With everything more or less said between the two parties, everyone began to file out of the briefing room. Those who knew Liara better stayed to offer some extra goodbyes.

"Watch yourself out there, T'Soni," Garrus informed her. "I wager you have a lot of targets on your back right about now."

"I imagine it's about the same as any other mission we've been on," Liara replied smiling.

"Touché," the turian relented.

Garrus stepped away and Tali took his place.

"It's good to know you're alright, Liara," she greeted her old friend. "I was quite worried to be honest when that batarian bosh'tet made that stupid ultimatum of his."

"Yes, I remember, I overheard it myself," Liara recalled. "And if I may be honest, I wish you were here with me right now. This ship is a quarian's dream I imagine."

"It sounds like it," Tali said, chuckling slightly. "I know for certain Halsey would kill to probably see it herself. And I'm not entirely sure I'm speaking metaphorically in that sense, she's still part of ONI just not nearly as underhanded and scheming."

In the back of his mind, Shepard wondered how Halsey would've taken to Liara. Both were well versed in ancient alien civilizations in their own way. Perhaps, if the good Doctor was still alive, they could consider getting her to talk with Liara herself. She could shed some light on things for her about the Forerunners. It was something to at least consider.

"Liara, could you do something for me?" Tali asked sincerely. "Send a message back to the Migrant Fleet for me and explain what has happened. Contact Admiral Shala'Raan, she's the most likely person who will listen. With any luck, maybe they'll try to help you out if they know what's happening."

"I imagine the Flotilla has greater issues at the moment," Liara astutely noted.

"More than likely, but it would be good to at least warn them," Tali reiterated. "Even if they're hesitant, Raan can pull some strings to try and help you in a pinch. Tell Shala about the time I slept over and I tried to ride around on her personal maintenance drone when I was eight. She's the only one who really knows about that anymore. That should get her to believe you."

Both Liara and Shepard eyed the quarian with a slight bit of surprise.

"You tried to ride on a maintenance drone?" Shepard asked hesitantly.

"I was a kid," Tali embarrassingly grumbled. "Kids like to ride on things. It was only natural."

"That is too damn adorable," Shepard said grinning at the quarian.

Tali tried to hide her face out of the fear Shepard would notice her blushing through her visor. Meanwhile, Liara had a good little laugh at the image of a little Tali trying to both catch and hold onto a drone of all things.

"Don't worry, Tali," Liara assured. "I'll let them know about the Hegemony's and The Covenant's plans. I doubt the sangheili intend to leave the Migrant Fleet alone anyway to be honest. Giving them a heads up would probably be a good idea."

"Thank you," Tali answered graciously. "I know we can count on you. Stay safe out there, and kick that four-eyed bosh'tet's ass."

"Clear through the wormhole so you can get a few kicks in yourself if I have to," Liara jokingly replied.

Tali left the room, leaving Shepard to speak with his estranged crewmate by himself in private. He did have a bit more to talk to her about than just a pleasant goodbye. Considering what she had been through though, he figured he'd ask them in private. They were more personal in nature anyway.

"So, looks like you have my job as galactic hero for the moment, huh?" He asked.

"Seems that way," Liara shrugged. "Although I'll be more than happy to return that title back to you once this mess is sorted out. Honestly, I have a greater appreciation now about how you recruited and led your own little band of misfits through the Omega-4 Relay."

"If I could handle that, you can handle this," he assured her. "There are few people I'd trust to deal with as big a threat as what you're facing. I guess I'm just happy you and Wrex have a hold on things."

The asari beamed at the Commander's compliment, but quickly retained her composure.

"Well, it is good to have Wrex backing me up," she stated, rubbing her forearm as she did. "His little band of krogan warriors certainly evens the odds."

"How's he doing anyway?" Shepard asked.

"You know Wrex," Liara sighed. "Enduring, so to speak. He's really hoping the Urdnot warriors are learning something from this mission. I'd like to think they are. They're certainly more open with my own Operatives now than they were when we started out."

"And the rest of your new crew?" Shepard asked.

Liara chuckled somewhat under her throat as she thought about her answer.

"It's hard to place them at times," she admitted. "At least I can count on their loyalty now, although they have some baggage I'll probably end up having to work out."

"So basically just like old times then, huh?" Shepard joked.

"With just as many things exploding," the asari dryly stated. "I'll admit, it is somewhat invigorating and looking back I did get a bit of enjoyment out of watching that towering eyesore on Khar'shan fall."

"You got video of that?" Shepard asked. "I know some people here who'd probably like to see that themselves, me included."

Liara couldn't help but let out a laugh at Wade's comment.

"Glad to see the undead monsters and murderous aliens haven't dulled your sense of humour," she noted.

"Part of the old Shepard charm," the Commander replied.

Suddenly, Liara looked to her omni-tool. Apparently, she had just gotten a message on it. Given the expression on her face, it was at least good news.

"That's from one of my teammates," she informed Shepard. "He says Coda has gotten power to the engines working again. I'm going to have to head up to the bridge to see about flying this thing out of this moon pretty soon."

"Coda's that Huragok thing you mentioned, right?" Shepard asked.

"Yes, he's an amazing creature," Liara replied. "I'm not sure how many are over here, but I wouldn't mind finding a few more. The knowledge and abilities they possess, it makes them extremely invaluable. It also helps that they don't seem to like the Covenant all that much either."

"I'll keep that mind if I ever run into some," Shepard told her with a nod. "I should go. You need to get that ship out of there before the Illusive Man makes a more serious play for it. Take care, Liara."

"You too, Shepard," Liara replied back. "May the Goddess be with you over there, with all of you. I'll contact you again soon."

And with that, Liara ended the transmission. It was sad to see her go so soon, but at least Shepard knew she was alive, well and doing what she could to thwart the Covenant on her end. He didn't doubt she could figure out how to stop Balak and this Vorsa character and Liara was more than a match for the Illusive Man. Shepard just hoped they could help her as much as she had helped them just now.

"EDI," he said as started to walk out of the room. "What do you have on the files Liara just uploaded to us?"

"A significant amount of data, Commander," the AI replied. "I am still sifting through it now. I'll be sure to assist Ms. Lawson in writing a report concerning the most relevant bits of information."

"Good," Shepard concurred. "In the meantime, let's hightail it back to Alpha Base and pick up the rest of our crew there. If we are intending to take over a Covenant ship to get off this ring, we need to come up with a good plan."

Miranda's suggestion of the Truth and Reconciliation seemed to be their only option. That would require them to fix the damaged battlecruiser, further limiting their time. That was the initial concern at least. However, there was a still unaddressed problem though, one that the talk about the Inquisitor's possible intent with the Flood had brought up in his mind. What if the Flood had gotten to it first? Could they risk using it as an escape vehicle if it was infested? And if it was infested and they couldn't use it, where else could they turn with such little time left?

That left the inevitable fear Shepard did not want to face, the possibility they may need to leave people behind. He knew that wasn't something he relished considering and a part of him wondered if the Master Chief had already thought of that possibility himself. Given what had happened on Reach, with his team, Shepard imagined the Spartan liked the idea even less.

Before he could ponder matters further though, a warning alarm sounded throughout the ship.

"Commander," Joker informed hurriedly. "We got some unfriendly skies up ahead! A whole lot of tangos, boogies, whatever you wanna call them, and they're all coming in fast!"

"Covenant?" Shepard asked.

"No sir, too small for Covenant," Joker warned.

Shepard ran up through the whole of the deck, straight to the cockpit. He knew there was only one other unfriendly group after their heads on this planet now. As he looked over Joker's shoulder he confirmed what he had feared. There, speeding through the sky were several dozen flights of gleaming silver robots, all streaming towards them.

"Sentinels," Shepard growled lowly. "Guilty Spark is making his move. Joker, fire up all weapons and prepare for evasive action. We're in for a fight."

Chief rushed up the ramp to take the high ground, reloading his shotgun as he did. As he reached the top, he spotted at least three Combat Forms already waiting for him. He fired a large spread, cutting down two with one shot before they could react. He fired again on the third as it began to shoot him with its plasma rifle, draining a portion of the Spartan's shields.

As the undead creatures fell, Chief turned around towards the way he had come up. Two entryways lay in front of him now, both led back down to the ground floor that was presently filled with scores of Flood Combat forms. They'd soon be up here though, for those two previous shotgun blasts might as well have been the ringing of a dinner bell.

"Movement in the right passage," Cortana cautioned. "Coming in fast!"

"I got it covered," Chief assured her.

The Spartan tossed a frag grenade into the passage just as an Elite Combat Drone scrambled up to the top. The grenade exploded moments later, blowing off the undead creature's arms and destroying those behind him. More were coming though, as Chief's motion tracker attested to.

The Spartan aimed his shotgun at the opposing passage and watched as Combat Forms began to pour out of it. Chief began firing a constant barrage of shotgun shells at the incoming Flood, blowing them to bits as they raced up to the top. Several undead corpses slid back the way they came or fell into a growing pile on the floor.

Chief soon found himself shifting fire every couple of seconds as more Combat Forms raced up the other ramp. They were following their prime tried and true tactic, to overwhelm through numbers. If he let up for but a second, Chief knew he could be overrun with ease. At least here he could funnel their numbers somewhat through the only two points of entry.

At some point, all Master Chief could hear was the sound of the shotgun going off constantly ringing in his ears. It was always followed by the click of the next pump of the gun, then another shot as he pulled the trigger. Then, the violent symphony suddenly stopped. In Chief's haste, he had momentarily lost track of his ammunition display, the gun was empty.

Frantically, Chief loaded another round of shells into the weapon. Although his weapon had stopped firing for the moment, the Flood had no intention of stopping. He could hear more coming already and there was little to no place to run to for cover up here. The only option was to keep fighting.

Before he was even half way done reloading, one Combat Form rushed up firing its plasma rifle. His shields quickly failing under the barrage, Master Chief was forced to back off. However, the Combat Form closed the distance remarkably fast and struck the Master Chief with its tendril. The blow was bad enough to send the Spartan flying backward, letting go of his shotgun in the process.

Chief scrambled to his feet, his recharging shield warning alarm blaring in his ears. He dove for the shotgun as plasma bolts chased him. He grabbed the weapon once more, flipped onto his back and began letting loose with shot after shot. The offending Combat Form was blown to bits, along with at least two others coming up directly behind it.

It had been a close call, but Chief had survived the onslaught. As he pulled himself up, he began reloading his shotgun once more. On the outside he looked fine, but the Combat Form's hit had done a number on him. Fighting through the pain, he continued to press forward with the mission.

When he was finished reloading his shotgun, he broke out the bio-foam from one of the small container packs on his suit. This was the special kind, the one the Normandy's science officer, Mordin Solus had concocted. It was enhanced with the properties of their medi-gel, boosting the effectiveness of the foam. Chief plugged the canister into a special compartment in his suit that would administer it to his afflicted areas. Cortana activated the device for him, quickly healing the injured Spartan.

"You certainly are a glutton for punishment, Chief," Cortana noted aloud.

"It's part of the job," He replied rather succinctly.

"Yes, but with you... definitely more so than others," the AI said rather sardonically.

He didn't respond to that, mostly because he had a feeling she wasn't just talking about getting shot. He didn't want to go there again. He had made his case to her before and he had nothing else to say. Shepard was where he belonged, with his crew, his family. He had put that at risk enough, no more. This was for the best, for all of them.

"Why exactly do you blame yourself for Reach?" Cortana asked him, seemingly out of nowhere.

"I don't," he denied. "I blame myself for not being where I needed to be."

"And then Linda may have died," Cortana informed him. "Shepard may have died in fact, considering you and Johnson went down there to help him get away from that exploding wormhole generator."

"The Normandy's security teams would've helped him," Chief countered. "They didn't need me. They just needed their ship to get planetside."

"My point is, you can't save everyone," the AI was quick to interject.

No, you couldn't save everyone. He knew that. He had known it since the first round of augmentations. He had known it when Daisy ran away. He had known it when they lost their first Spartan to the Covenant. That wasn't the point. The point was that he had lost them. He had lost them all for nothing.

"They were my responsibility," Chief stated stoically. "They had been mine since training. But in the end, I couldn't do anything for them. Even while on the Normandy, it was already too late. Their area had been overrun. There was nothing I could do. They deserved better."

"They had you, Chief," Cortana said, trying to comfort him. "You looked out for them, made them stronger. They're the reason they made it as far as they did, not the reason they're dead."

His thoughts drifted back to years past. To battlefields long abandoned and world's burnt to glass. To friends who had been wasted and those who had been spent. The former dead for no good reason, the latter gone because they gave their all.

It was the nature of war. It was what they had taught him. They had prepared him for it. They had not prepared him, however, to experience it over and over and over again. Each Spartan he marked MIA may as well have been a bullet to his heart. And while the deaths of Marines never hurt as much, the weight could still be felt regardless. Each one screamed out him as a failure, a weakness.

"They shouldn't have died," he spoke softly. "If I was better, stronger, things might have been different. I was responsible for them, all of them, and I couldn't save them."

"Well carrying that guilt of yours around with you won't make you stronger," Cortana was quick to counter. "Not if you bear it alone at least."

"I already told you," Chief unfalteringly replied. "I'm better off alone. After this long, it's the only thing I deserve."

Chief exited the room through the back door. He kept his gun trained ahead of him, anticipating the inevitable fight ahead. As he reached the end of the winding hallway, the door opened back to the outside and the second bridge. He could still hear the low garbling cries of the Flood as he approached. They had probably killed what was left of the Covenant on the other bridge. However, as the siren-like sound of a Banshee screeched through the snowy sky, it became clear that they weren't completely gone either.

Two Banshees raced out from the horizon, pelting the bridge with plasma bolts. Chief kept himself in cover as he watched the Flood retaliating, firing back while the two craft pulled out from their attack run. The Banshees soon turned around and attacked again though. The Flood may have owned the bridges, but aircraft were beyond they reach.

Chief doubted that would hold true for long though. The Flood Combat Forms weren't great shots, but they could still land a devastating hit given enough time. If any of their number were armed with rocket launchers, well, then that would make things even more difficult.

Regardless, the banshees would probably target him as well as soon as they spotted him. He wasn't about to let that scare him from pressing on though. He just needed to stay out of their crosshairs best he could.

"I'll keep an eye on the banshees," Cortana told him. "You just focus on getting us off this bridge."

"Got it, let's go,"

Chief moved out onto the bridge proper, shotgun at the ready. Almost immediately, the Combat Forms began to rush at him, firing their weapons as they did. Master Chief unloaded several shots as he pressed forward, blowing away the Combat Forms as they charged. Their rotting flesh separated into chunks as the buckshot tore into them. Their limbs were ripped from their decaying bodies as the shells collided into them.

The commotion caught the attention of the Banshees rather quickly. One flew in for an attack run on the Spartan. As its crosshairs closed on the lone human super soldier, Cortana shouted out a warning.

"Chief, dive forward now!"

Not questioning the AI's warning, Chief jumped ahead, past the first barrier along the width of the bridge. The plasma bolts missed their target completely. The crosshairs couldn't follow the Spartan either, for the wall blocked his view.

However, Chief had merely avoided one foe only to attract the attention of another. An Elite Combat Form, just inches in front of him rushed forward to attack the Master Chief. Reacting quickly, the Spartan punched the undead alien in the upper torso. There was enough power behind the hit to force the Flood Form to stumble away from him. With the creature's back turned, Chief trained his gun on it. He fired on it as he walked away from it, blowing a hole clean through the monster's back.

"Banshee!" Cortana shouted. "Coming in low!"

Chief looked up and spotted the enemy craft. He tucked and rolled away from the fighter's incoming fire as it raked the deck of the ship. He popped back up and fired at the ship's tail as it flew away, hoping to land a lucky hit and not have to deal with it again.

Suddenly, something slimy and cold wrapped around Chief's neck. A Combat Form tentacle closed around him from behind. The appendage began to choke the Spartan as he gripped for it, trying to tear it off him. He could hear the low growling shriek of his undead assailant as it pulled him closer to itself. His hand grasped along the length of the tentacle, trying to take hold of it.

"Rerouting extra power to suit's servo systems!" Cortana shouted at him. "Pull! Now!"

Chief closed his hand, digging his fingers into the tentacle appendage's flesh. With all his strength, he pulled the tentacle clean away from the arm. The Combat Form shrieked aloud as the appendage came loose, backing up to the edge of the bridge itself. Chief fired off two blasts from his shotgun and watched the body of the Flood form tumble over the side to the snow below.

Chief turned back towards his objective, the other end of the bridge. As he ran forward, two Flood Forms climbed atop the small wall along the bridge in front of him. They fired their plasma weapons once or twice before leaping into the air towards the Spartan proper. Chief aimed his gun high and fired two consecutive shots up at the monstrosities. The shells ripped their bodies apart and tumbled to the bridge in a heap. Chief had to duck just to avoid one of the corpses hitting him.

"Banshee coming around for another pass!" Cortana warned suddenly.

Chief rushed to the safety of the wall and let the banshee unload on it to no effect. He was now half way across the bridge, but it didn't look like things were going to let up any time soon. He just hoped Cortana was able to keep track of the Banshees long enough for them to get back inside the corridors.

However, it seemed fate had other ideas. As he left Cover, Chief saw the doors on the other end of the bridge open wide. Then, he heard a strange shrieking cry, but it wasn't from a Combat Form. It wasn't long before the source became clear. Crawling over the wall in front of him and barrelling onto the bridge proper was squad-sized group of elites. They weren't really elites though, the glowing blue on their bodies, the plasma swords grafted to their wrists and bits of machinery plugged into their mouths made that very clear.

"Reavers!" Cortana shouted aloud in his ear.

"I noticed," Chief grimaced in response.

The Elite Husks began assaulting the Flood. Their shields protected them from most of the incoming fire and allowed them to literally cut the Combat Form down. Their plasma swords seemed to make easy work of the Flood initially, but they soon fought back. One Combat Form jumped on the back of a Reaver and began beating him down. Another fired its shotgun on a Reaver, eventually destroying its shield before blowing off the husk's head.

The Reavers did not attack the Combat Forms only though. Chief became a target soon after their arrival. One charged forward, taking swings and stabs at the Spartan. As he rolled back to safety, Chief spotted a plasma rifle on the ground. Taking it in one hand and grabbing the plasma pistol in the other, he opened fire on the onrushing Reaver. An overcharged blast killed the shields completely while a volley from the plasma rifle tore the Reaver's arm off in several spots. Combined shots from both weapons ripped through the Husk's body next and it tumbled over in pieces.

Chief was barely able to stand up, before a second Reaver attacked. He dodged to the side as the creature began to slash away with its swords. He felt something crunch beneath his foot as he walked back. Looking down he saw the remains of the Reaver from before. Thinking quickly, he grabbed the charred hand and activated the plasma sword still embedded in it with a flick.

As the still living Reaver closed, chief blocked its attack with the plasma sword. The husk kept pushing hard, trying to break the defence. Unsure how long he could hold out, Chief forced the plasma rifle he was still holding into the Elite's mouth and unloaded until the weapon began to smoke. The husk's head evaporated in a blaze of blue plasma and the Reaver finally fell to the ground dead.

At least these things still needed their brains.

Chief took a quick look around the bridge and saw it was in a haze of chaos. Reavers cut down scores of Flood. Combat Forms leaped from the other bridge back over to this side, tackling Reavers to the ground. Other Combat Forms ganged up on certain Reavers, firing into them unwaveringly as it tried to cut them down. It was madness, two forms of creatures, both dead in the technical sense, both trying to murder each other.

"I don't want to stick around to find out who wins," Cortana informed the Spartan.

"No argument here," Chief agreed.

As the situation on the bridge deteriorated, one of the Banshees came in for another strafing run. It slammed into a Combat Form as it leaped across the bridge, splattering its guts across the cockpit. Maybe that was why it wasn't able to avoid the rocket that slammed into it seconds later. The hulking burning pile of metal fell onto the bridge and hit one of the undead creatures that was actually on its side this time, crushing a Reaver between it and a pylon along the center of the bridge.

Chief soon spotted the Combat Form that had fired the rocket. It fired a second rocket at a Reaver that was pinned down by a Marine Flood Form. Both creatures were incinerated by the blast, but when you could make more what did it matter? It would take awhile for the shambling corpse to reload, if it had any rockets to reload with of course. Chief didn't want to take that chance, it was time to leave.

He spotted his chance as the second Banshee sped towards him. The Master Chief came up with a rather risky plan to get out of this situation, but he had a feeling Cortana wouldn't like it. Not that she could stop him of course. As the Banshee came in low, charging for the Chief head-on, the Spartan made a mad dash for the edge of the bridge.

"What the hell are you doing?" Cortana asked, gravely frightened at what she was being dragged into.

"Getting us off this bridge," he informed her casually.

He dodged the Banshee as it came careening towards him. The Flood opened fire on the craft with small arms as it passed them. Chief, however, was not looking to kill the Banshee, he just wanted to get on it. He grabbed the aircraft's landing struts and held on tight. As the Banshee left the bridge, a rocket exploded near where Chief had been.

However, the Banshee hadn't been so lucky. Smoke started pouring out of its backside, it had been hit. Unfortunately for the Master Chief, that was hardly the worst problem. As he righted himself on the struts, he discovered he wasn't the only stowaway.

"Look out!" Cortana shouted "Your left!"

Chief pulled himself to the right as a plasma sword stabbed into the Banshee. Another Reaver had grabbed the ship, latching onto the tail. It forced itself up onto the ship now and took another stab at the Spartan. It massed again as Chief pulled back. This time the stab caused a small explosion to erupt along the Banshee's side. The blast knocked the Reaver off, but now the Banshee itself was falling from the sky.

As the ground edged closer and closer, Chief held on for dear life. He saw a large structure below him, a sort of multi-ridged structure forming an open tunnel across a ravine. The Banshee was headed straight for it.

"Chief, when I tell you to jump, jump!" Cortana hurriedly told him as they closed on the structure.

"You sure about-"

"I've made all the calculations in less than five seconds," she screeched at him. "If you don't listen we're going to explode with this thing when it hits the ground! Now jump!"

Chief followed her order and let go of the Banshee. The momentum carried him forward several rungs along the structure as the Banshee flew over it. He slammed into the final rung and grabbed onto the side before he tumbled over. The banshee kept going until it slammed nose first into the snow covered soil below and exploded in a massive blue fireball.

Chief pulled himself up onto the rung and stood up. He looked out onto the field before him, passed the destroyed Banshee and beheld a terrible sight. There is the distance, a battle between Covenant and Flood raged.

As he tried to make out what was happened, Chief saw Elites being strangled by tentacles before shot from behind. Grunts were tossed about by Combat Form, thrown into their still living Comrades. An Elite Commander tried to rally his forces, only to be overrun with Infection Forms and then beaten down by the Combat Forms. A Carrier Form ran up to a Covenant Shade Turret and exploded beneath it, sending it and the gunner flying. A Wraith did its best to fire on the Flood Horde, but all it could was hope the plasma turret gunner could pick the enemy off.

For once in this decades long war, the Master Chief briefly felt sorry for humanity's hated enemy.

"The next generator is through that and in the next canyon," Cortana informed him.

"I figured," he replied.

There was a brief silence as both AI and Spartan watched the horrific fight unfold. More Flood Forms rushed into the fray, surrounding the beleaguered Covenant. More Covenant Soldiers ran in to assist their comrades. It was a meat grinder, full of enemies on all sides and they would have to get through it. And if the battlenet was right, it wasn't the only time they'd have to.

"Chief," Cortana solemnly said aloud, breaking the silence suddenly. "I know you think you're better off alone, that you feel it's better that way. But you're not alone. I'm here. And whether or not you think you deserve me, well, it doesn't matter. We need each other, now. That's what matters."

Chief said nothing. He had nothing to say. He just lowered his head as the AI kept talking.

"Guilt won't make you stronger," she told him comfortingly. "It's those around you, who bear the burdens with you that make you stronger. Forcing yourself away from that, that's what will make you weaker. Right now, distancing yourself like this, the person you're failing is yourself. You don't have to face this alone, Chief. Not while I'm here."

The Spartan's head rose back up and he looked at the battle before him. He pulled out the Shotgun he still had, placed a few shells into the weapon and pumped it once.

"Alright then, partner," he stated resolutely. "Any ideas how to get out of this mess?"

The AI gave a small, gratified laugh at the Spartan's response.

"We can try sneaking around them," she began to suggest. "I think our best shot though is to try to force our way through them. However, we'll need a faster mode of transportation to accomplish that."

Chief looked about for any potential possibilities for such a transport. He spotted something beneath him in the ravine below, an abandoned Ghost on its back, with a dead Elite pilot nearby. The Spartan grinned slightly.

"I think I can get us a ride," he assured the AI.

Several decks were currently on fire, an exceeding number of turret batteries had lost or were losing their power, more systems were being taken offline, their armour was getting shredded, their shields were failing and the engine was practically straining to keep them going. The only reason the Fallen Serpent wasn't scrap was that the Covenant ships were refraining from firing any killing blows. As long as they thought Varvok's people were hostages, they were safe from that potential fate.

The Bridge, however, was taking a beating. To keep the glass from shattering, Zek ordered the shutters to close up. They were flying by sensors now. They could still hear the fighters pounding them though, clawing at them. All power they could spare was being diverted to the shields for the Bridge. If they took them out, they weren't going anywhere period. At the very least, their gunners and automated defences could stave off the fighters targeting the bridge.

They wouldn't be able to stop The Seeker of Truth, from doing the same. Retz kept a tight watch on the ship as it stalked them like a slasher-jaw that had gotten a whiff of blood in the water. And there was little doubt they were bleeding. Taking a look around the Bridge itself made that clear. The lights had long gone out, emergency lighting had taken over. Coolant vents were bursting open from the heavy hits and power cables had exploded from the feedback, blowing holes in the walls. The monitors had fortunately not suffered the same fate due to their precautions.

"Good thing we installed those safeties, huh?" Zek asked. "We could've had people exploding and shit by now. Now we just got a bunch of dying monitors."

"The 'exploding and shit' is going to happen either way when 'Vadamee gets his guns in range," Retz noted. "Our shields can't take the kind of firepower his Carrier is packing."

It was at that moment, one of Retz monitors fizzled out and died in front of him.

"Ugh, damn it," he growled. "Now we're flying half blind."

"Well better than no safeties at all and YOU being completely blind," Zek noted. "You know, because you'd be dead."

"I'm glad you find this so amusing, when we're about to get slagged, sir," Retz grumbled sarcastically. "Thel is almost within range. We're losing power to engines, we won't make it to Halo in this condition."

But Zek still remained relatively confident, something Retz was even more afraid of than getting blown up of course. This was because if Zek was still in high spirits then he had a really risky plan up in his head. Which probably meant something bad was going to happen.

"Just keep driving us towards the ring," Zek ordered. "I'm contacting Four-Eyes. It's time for one more surprise."

Thel knew he had them now. The bridge was getting pounded with everything the fighters could throw at it and her engines were dying. When they got in range, the Fallen Serpent's Captain would be dead and they could simply board the ship with little effort. He'd finally get Empathy off his back and he could spend resources where they were needed more, fighting the Flood. This little mutiny wouldn't even earn a footnote in the historical records when this day was done. It would be over as soon as it began.

"Supreme Commander," one of the intelligence officers shouted up. "Another transmission from Lieutenant Commander Varvok is coming through!

"On main screen," Thel ordered.

The batarian's face came into view, as well as what appeared to be some kind of battle in the background. Thel could see and hear plasma and gunfire being exchanged, but nothing else. Varvok was also firing at something briefly before he began to talk.

"I'm holding Zek's people back from the hangar," he began. "I have half my remaining men aboard two Spirit Dropships I managed to liberate. I've directed them to your flagship, but I need you to stop firing until they get into your hangar bays and safety."

"Only half your men?" Thel asked confused. "Why aren't you going with them?"

"Would you abandon the field when you still had warriors on it?" Varvok asked. "I leave when everyone else is off this ship. Until then, I'm staying here and protecting them from these Pirates. You either call off your attack long enough for my people to get to safety or you risk killing them as well. Once I'm away, then you can blow this ship to atoms."

"I admire your conviction to fight on, slaver," Thel responded. "But do not presume to give me orders. I will hold off on attacking the Pirate vessel for now, until your men are safely aboard my ship. However, I will continue the attack afterwards. I am within range of the Serpent's bridge. I will not wait to end this mutiny longer than need be."

"Just give them time to get aboard," Varvok pleaded humbly. "That's all I ask."

Thel just sighed, he supposed Zek wasn't going to get much further and he could always keep moving into position and fire when ready. It was of no real concern.

"Very well, I will call off fighters for the moment," Thel assured.

Varvok cut transmission and almost as if on cue, the Prophet of Empathy rolled up beside him.

"It would be best if we placed a guard on the dropships as they make their approach," Empathy advised. "We should detain the batarian hostages for questioning when they land as well."

"I already have a guard placed there," Thel assured. "They shall handle the situation. In the meantime, we must call off the fighters and have them escort the dropships to the designated areas. We still do not know the full nature of this mutiny. We must exercise caution."

Varvok stepped out of cover as the shooting stopped. The corridor scorched, but no blood stained the floor. Both his men and Zek's walked out to meet one another in the hall, surrounding the Lieutenant Commander as he contacted Zek.

"They appear to have bought my performance," he informed the pirate through his omni-tool.

"Excellent," Zek replied. "And the Spirits?"

"Loaded with everything you asked," Varvok grinned. "And a little bit extra, courtesy of the Hegemony Military."

Zek chuckled, delighted at the news.

"Excellent, I have Retz monitoring the situation now," he explained. "Thel is providing them escort. He's wary, but it won't matter."

The Spirits began to close in on the open hangar. The Seraphs began to guide them in. One moved in first, but the second lagged behind. Its Seraph Escort pulled back to see what the delay was as the first one landed. The Spirit touched down and sangheili crowded around it, armed with heavy weapons. They were expecting batarian hostages that they would take into custody. Then the doors on the ship opened wide, revealing several tons of explosives, big and small all attached to a very large bomb in both troop compartments.

Written across both bombs were the same words.

"Fuck the Covenant!"

Within five seconds of the doors opening, the sangheili around the dropship were taken into paradise. The explosion cascaded across the hangar bay, detonating plasma conduits and Seraphs loaded for combat. Before long, the entire deck was ablaze.

The second Dropship fired on its escort in the confusion and blasted off in another direction, towards the carrier's bridge. The Seraphs followed, but the dropship dodged and rolled away from their shots with surprising ease.

Retz chuckled at his terminal as he kept a grip on the controls for the remote pilot. The camera on the back of the dropship tracked the incoming fire, allowing him to avoid most of it.

"I actually kinda like this plan so far," he told Zek.

"Keep on course for their bridge," Zek ordered. "We can't blow it up like the hangar, but we can rattle them pretty damn hard."

Warning alarms sounded all over the bridge. Intelligence Officers scrambled to learn the cause, but nothing seemed to be clear. Thel tried to preside over the madness, but could barely be heard over the alarms.

"The hell is going on? "He screamed as loud as possible.

"Main hangar appears to have just... exploded, sir!" Someone finally shouted up to him.

"What?! What happened!?" He demanded in a rage. "Get me footage from surveillance!"

Thel's request was brought onscreen and he watched as the Spirit Dropship landed and then exploded. Balling his fists in anger, he slammed them both down on his console.

"Varvok! The slaver scum!" He shouted aloud, his voice filling the entire room. "He WAS part of this!"

"I knew it!" Empathy screeched. "I knew he couldn't be trusted! I knew we should've blown them all to-"

"Will you shut up for once in worthless life!?" Thel shouted at the pompous idiot. "I don't care!"

Suddenly, a terrible thought crossed his mind. Varvok said there were two dropships. He had only spotted one. Before he could ask about its location, something hijacked the communications. Varvok's face appeared on the screen once more.

"Sorry, Supreme Commander," he said rather deadpan and cold. "It seems you were gravely mistaken after all. Goodbye."

The transmission cut out. Thel didn't even have time to roar in anger before an intelligence officer called up to him.

"Commander! Collision Warning detected near our-"

The bridge was rocked by what felt like something hitting them and then again as something exploded.

Zek crew watched on the main monitor and got a glimpse of the explosion that rocked the Command Deck. The Seeker of Truth suddenly reared off course from its attack run on the Serpent. As his bridge filled with cheers and jubilation, Zek remained silent. They weren't out of this just yet.

Thel pushed himself up off the floor. The blast had thrown him clear from the Command Deck. The Spirit's payload of bombs had hit them hard, but it hadn't compromised the hull integrity. They were too deep inside the ship itself for that to happen, even with a Spirit Dropship full of bombs. Thel doubted that had been Zek's plan though.

"Damage report!" He ordered as he got to his feet.

"We've lost power to a number of command functions," answered an intelligence officer. "The blast exposed several upper decks to space. We survived the brunt of the damage, but several subsystems were disrupted. Communications to the fleet are still enabled, but we've lost primary power to the entire Command Deck. Secondary power is taking longer than expected to boot up. Its possible the supply was damaged as well."

Zek had failed to kill him, but he had wounded his ship enough to keep him off his tail for awhile. The kig-yar pirate wouldn't have waited long to get out of range of his guns and with his main hangar damaged he couldn't send more fighters to pursue.

It was then Thel realised that he could not see the Prophet of Empathy anymore. He looked about, confused as to where he had gone. Then he saw a few deck hands crowded around what appeared to be a large cable that had been blown loose from a wall. Thel pushed his way past the group and found what had attracted their attention.

Empathy was laying there, his chair lying on the ground a few feet away. Around the Prophet was a puddle of liquid coolant and the electrical cable had fallen into it. Empathy's face was frozen in a look of terror as electricity still kept causing the body to twitch. When someone cut the power to the cable, he stopped moving altogether.

Thel's look took on a grave appearance, this was not good.

"Get. Me. Orna." He ordered.

They were now approaching the edge of the fleet, but they were still under heavy fire. Worse yet, battlecruisers were now blocking their path. It appeared they had only delayed the inevitable. Thel could not follow them, but there were plenty of ships to take his place.

"Engines are starting to crack under all this pressure," Retz warned. "We can't take much more. I hope you have another surprise, Zek!"

"Just one," he replied. "Fire up the slipspace generator."

Retz did a double take at his friend's command.

"Are you nuts? You can't perform a slipspace jump in these close quarters!" He shouted. "Not with this kind of damage! We could break under the strain!"

"It's just going to be a small jump," Zek assured. "Just target some coordinates on the ring below and make sure we don't hit anything."

"We do that and we risk completely wrecking the engines at this point," Retz warned.

"And if we don't we're gonna get vaporized in five seconds!" Zek reminded him. "Just do it!"

Retz shook his head in frustration. He realised this was probably their only option, but he didn't like it. slipspace wasn't made for these kinds of jumps. Not this close to other ships and not into a planet's atmosphere, especially not an artificial one. Retz relayed the orders. He had to confirm them at least twice. Even the engine crew wasn't sure about this plan, but they decided to follow it.

As they prepared to go through their little ball of insanity, one of the deck hands called up to Zek.

"Battlecruiser closing in to point blank range, sir," he shouted up. "And it's hailing us!"

"They want to gloat, huh?" said Zek with a glower. "Fine, let'em."

The main screen turned on and revealed the face of Orna 'Fulsamee staring right at Zek. He had a rather pleased smile on him and a sickening sinister look in his eyes. Zek supposed he had reason to feel confident, if he was Orna he'd be feeling confident. Their ship was barely holding together after all.

"Your attempt on the Supreme Commander's life proved fruitless, pirate," he stated. "He lives and he has ordered me to end you."

"He wants you to clean up your mess, huh?" Zek laughed. "Considering you're half of the reason I'm doing this, I guess he at least knows how to delegate."

"I will greatly enjoy this actually," Orna assured him. "Wiping you and the treacherous batarian from existence will assure my place in paradise. There is no greater act in the Covenant than that of the execution of mutineers, traitors and heretics. Those men of yours that I sent to die are the lucky members of your crew. They shall be remembered for their noble sacrifice. Your memory will be damned for all time."

Zek just grinned back, even as Orna's ship opened fire with pulse lasers and plasma cannons. Then he started to laugh.

"I'm about to send a volley of plasma torpedoes straight down your throat, pirate," Orna stated. "Why do you laugh? Has the madness finally taken you?"

"No, I'm just laughing at the fact the asshole who sent my men to die has placed his ship so close to me right now," Zek chuckled. "Cause you see... well, you're gonna love what comes next. Say, do you know what happens to the space in front of a slipspace jump, exactly? No reason, I'm just wondering if you know."

It was at that moment the slipspace generator activated and began to create a slipspace wake. Orna's face suddenly shifted into one of terror and then rage.

"What have you done?" He asked in a low, fearful, but aggressive tone. "You'll kill us both you fool!"

"Maybe, but you'll die as well so it's still a win," Zek declared, standing up from his chair and grabbing a bottle of ichor nearby. "As the old sailors would say, see you in the Grotto of the Abyss, Shipmaster!"

As Zek took a swig, Orna cussed out the kig-yar's name as the ship entered slipspace rupture. Orna's ship was pushed aside by the anomaly, damaging it heavily. The Fallen Serpent vanished from sight while the Battlecruiser veered hard downward in an attempt to save itself. As smoke and debris flittered off of it, the rupture closed.

Over a little mountain on the far side of Halo, the desolate and serene calm was suddenly shattered as a deserting Covenant Corvette suddenly jumped into view. The ship avoided hitting the mountain head-on, but scraped against it side. Rock and stone clattered against the steel of the wounded ship, as the mountainside crumbled against the vessel's sudden arrival.

Aboard, everyone was more or less shaken by the sudden stop. A number had been thrown about, other were clutching on for dear life. Zek had fallen back into his chair, his bottle of ichor flying backwards and smashing into a wall. He eventually got himself to sit back up, but his head was a fluster with the greatest ache it had ever known. He wasn't sure if it was alcohol, the tumble, the effects of slipspace or a combination of all three.

"We alive?" He asked out of nowhere.

"Define... alive," Retz grumbled.

After a few minutes, Varvok eventually stumbled his way onto the bridge. As the shutters opened to reveal they were now back on Halo and away from the Fleet, the batarian looked to Zek with a near emotionless face.

"What exactly did you just do?" He asked.

"Only break every rule about slipspace travel and live," Zek announced jubilantly, seemingly over his headache. "What a rush, eh?"

"I'll come up with a damage report," Retz sighed exasperatedly at it all. "Although I can bet you it's going to read 'Fucked to all hell' at the very least."

True enough, it hadn't been a perfect escape. But they were alive, away from the fleet and more or less free. Even if they were back on the death trap they were trying to leave. Still, it was better than Zek had expected.

Shepard scrambled to his command position on the deck as Sentinels swarmed about the ship. The Normandy's defences were doing their best to beat them off, but there were a ton of the little bastards to be sure. They were hitting their shields at several points, bombarding them from every side.

"Keep an eye on security systems," Shepard ordered. "If these things are trying to burrow their way inside we need to take them down quickly before they do any real damage to the ship."

Suddenly, there was a small explosion that came from the back of the ship.

"They're trying to kill our thrusters, sir!" Joker warned. "Looks like it tried to ram it when the lasers hit the hunk of junk!"

"Get missiles online, target everything you can," Shepard ordered. "EDI, can you zap these things in the brainpan or something?"

But EDI did not respond.

"EDI?" Shepard asked again, sounding more worried. "EDI, talk to me here! We need you on this!"

"Your construct cannot assist you."

That voice, that annoying, overly cheerful voice. How Shepard now hated that voice. And now it was coming from his own comm systems. Then, the ship's galaxy map suddenly disappeared and a new hologram took its place, that of the image of 343 Guilty Spark himself.

"While I was caught off guard on our first encounter, I am now more prepared," he explained. "Your security efforts prevent me from fully disabling her or affecting your ship, not without further use of power. That would risk my own systems, which I cannot afford at this juncture. Still, I can ensure that your construct will not be able to disrupt this transmission for the time being."

"What the hell do you want, Spark?" Shepard demanded. "You don't seem like the type to make super villain speeches or ultimatums, so why bother with this?"

"What I want, non-reclaimer, is my protocol to not be hindered further by your interference," The Monitor explained. "You have put this galaxy and all life beyond it, at considerable risk by assisting the Reclaimer in defying what must be done."

"You're the one who's going to wipe out life in the galaxy, buddy," Shepard reminded him.

Guilty Spark only responded with what appeared to be an annoyed shake of its body.

"I am following protocol, I am following the plan," he adamantly declared. "This installation must be fired. The Flood must be contained or all life throughout this universe, and perhaps even your own, may be extinguished."

"It's not at that point yet," Shepard argued with the AI. "We can stop them without killing everything this time! They're still stuck on this ring!"

"All the more reason to activate the array before it spreads further," Spark assured. "It has achieved success before and shall again."

The Normandy rocked violently as they took another bad hit from a Sentinel.

"I offer you this one chance, non-reclaimer," Spark informed Shepard. "Leave this installation and cease your interfering with established protocol. You have not the understanding, nor the will, to carry out what must be done."

"I see," Shepard grumbled, crossing his arms. "Leave and get killed by Halo later, or get killed by you now. I don't see how that benefits me either way."

"We have already noted your inability to show a sense of self-sacrifice," Spark displeasingly growled in kind. "Your influence has already contaminated one reclaimer, it will not affect more."

"Don't you lecture me about sacrifice, you malfunctioning little idiot," Shepard glowered at him.

The Commander shook his head, as another laser blast shook the side of their ship. The Sentinels weren't letting up, that was for sure. Shepard realised that the chances of convincing Spark to call the attack off were probably futile, given Cortana and Tali's own assessment. He still had to at least try though.

"Think about it this way," Shepard tried to articulate calmly. "The Forerunners had to have a plan in place to make sure life continued after the Rings fired. Otherwise, neither the Covenant nor humanity would still be alive today."

"Correct," Spark admitted. "It was all part of the plan."

"But now the Forerunners are dead," Shepard reminded him. "So if you pull this off, there's no coming back. Everything is dead, for good this time. You're an AI, you should be smart enough to figure out another way."

For a brief moment, Guilty Spark remained silent. It looked about, seemingly contemplating the Commander's words. However, the end result was predictable.

"We recognized the danger and prepared for it accordingly," he callously declared. "Life will eventually continue in some form, it will return, evolve over time. It will not be the same, but it will be free of the Flood. If you stand in the way of that, you must be removed. The Index must be returned to the Control Centre. The Flood must be stopped."

"And you really think you can pull the trigger on this thing a second time?" Shepard asked back coldly. "You think you can just kill the galaxy again for another one hundred thousand years? You can live with the fact you've done that twice, instead of finding another way?"

Guilty Spark stared blankly back at the Commander.

"You do not understand what I have given up, what we all gave up," he reiterated coldly. "If anything, this was the most merciful solution to the Flood threat. It was a victory, despite our shared destruction with the Flood. There were other plans, ones that would have been far worse for the future. Do not presume to judge my part in what eventually occurred. I followed protocol and it saved more lives than the alternatives."

"I can't believe there could be anything worse than mass galaxy-wide murder," Shepard countered venomously.

"No, you would not," Spark informed him matter-of-factly. "If you knew of the other proposals, of what HE wanted, you would not be so quick to judge. That does not matter now, however. All that matters is carrying out the protocol and protocol dictates you must be removed."

Suddenly, Guilty Spark's image shook about, turning into static. The holo turned back into a status screen for the ship itself. The Monitor was gone, but his Sentinels remained. They continued their relentless attacks on the Normandy, but at least now their controller was not offering commentary.

"EDI? You back with us?" Shepard asked as another laser blast struck across the bow of the ship.

"I am," the AI replied, sounding rather disturbed. "And I feel... violated. I also have an overriding to desire to see The Monitor's Installation destroyed more so than before now."

"They'll be time enough for that soon enough," Shepard assured her. "Get your cyberwar runtimes ready and try to open a channel to Alpha Base. I get the feeling we're not The Monitor's targets."

AN: This took longer than expected. Ugh, anyway, I'm not gonna bother with a big Author's note here as this chapter is being split in two before it reaches a hundred pages. And by split, I mean still have yet to write the intended second half. Check out the profile for more information. As for next time, we'll finish off this level and get moving towards the endgame. Not much longer now gang.